By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
2011-05-16 11:31 PM
Snow melt and rain have sent a torrent of water down the Mississippi, topping levees and forcing flooding along its path.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama planned to fly to Memphis, Tennessee, on Monday to meet with families affected when the river flooded there as well as local officials, first responders and volunteers.
The flooding in the rural Cajun country was engineered to spare the two major Louisiana cities _ New Orleans and Baton Rouge. A spillway was opened to divert water from the heavily populated cities along with chemical plants and oil refineries along the Mississippi's lower reaches.
Days ago, many of the towns known for their Cajun culture bustled with activity as people filled sandbags and cleared out belongings. By Sunday, some areas were virtually empty as the water from the Mississippi River, swollen by snowmelt and heavy rains, slowly rolled across the Atchafalaya River basin. It first started to come, in small amounts, into people's yards in Melville on Sunday. But it still had yet to move farther downstream.
The floodwaters could reach depths of 20 feet (6 meters) in the coming weeks, though levels were nowhere close to that yet in the towns about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Baton Rouge.
Elsewhere, in an effort to keep a major shipping connection between the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River open, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved in a fifth dredge to dig sediment out of the Southwest Pass. A high river brings a huge amount of sediment and the dredges were being used to keep the 45-foot (14-meter) channel needed for deep-draft shipping.
Over the weekend, the Port of New Orleans said it had been told by the Coast Guard that shipping probably would continue largely unhindered on the lower Mississippi.
The choice to subject the Cajun areas to flooding to save the cities angers John Muse, who drove from Lafayette to Melville to help his 86-year-old father-in-law Clovis Cole move his belongs. He said officials seem to be paying more attention to the concerns of Baton Rouge and New Orleans than people who live in the basin.
"They hurt a lot of feelings by putting that water in here like they did," he said. "What's happening here, I'll tell ya, it's not fair."
In Butte LaRose, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) downstream from where the Morganza spillway was opened, Chalmers Wheat, 54, was among the few left _ and even he was headed for his father's home in Baton Rouge outside the flood zone. He and his twin brother, Chandler, were making a few final preparations to protect his home with plastic lining and sandbags.
"It's almost like a ghost town," said Wheat.
It will be at least a week before the Mississippi River crest arrives at the Morganza spillway, where officials opened two massive gates on Saturday and another two Sunday. There are 125 in all. The Mississippi has broken river-level records that had held since the 1920s in some places.
The Army Corps of Engineers has taken drastic steps to prevent flooding. Further north, engineers blew up a levee in Missouri _ inundating an estimated 200 square miles (500 square kilometers) of farmland and damaging or destroying about 100 homes _ to take the pressure off floodwalls protecting the town of Cairo, Illinois, population 2,800.
The Morganza flooding is more controlled, however, and residents are warned each year that the spillway could be opened. A spillway at the 7,000-foot (2,100-meter) Bonnet Carre structure in Louisiana also has been opened.
Associated Press writer Kevin McGill in New Orleans and AP Video Journalist Robert Ray in Krotz Springs, Louisiana, contributed to this report.