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Flooded houses and property along the Mississippi River near Tunica, Miss., can be seen in this aerial view of the spreading damage from floodwaters. (Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press)

Federal engineers are close to opening a massive spillway along the Mississippi River that would protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans but flood hundreds of thousands of acres in Louisiana Cajun country.

With that threat looming, some 25,000 people in an area known for small farms, fish camps, crawfish and a drawling French dialect are hurriedly packing their things and worrying that their homes and way of life might soon be drowned.

People in this riverfront community gathered at their volunteer fire station to hear a man dressed in Army fatigues deliver an ominous flood forecast.

The corps could open the Morganza floodway north of Baton Rouge as early as this weekend, a move that would relieve pressure on the city's levee system.

Opening the spillway gates for the first time in 38 years will unleash the Mississippi on a wild ride south to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya River and divert floodwater from the river into the basin's swamplands, backwater lakes and bayous. Several thousand homes would be at risk of flooding.

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Makayla Thibodaux, 4, of Gibson, La., peers out the window of her mother's truck during a wait of more than two hours for sandbags to protect against damage from the rising Mississippi River. (Julia Rendleman/Houma Daily Courier/Associated Press)

Even if engineers decide against opening the spillway, no one seems to doubt that a major flood is bound for Butte LaRose, Krotz Springs, the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City and other swampland communities in the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Morganza and the nearby Old River Control Structure were built in the 1950s to keep the Mississippi on its current course through New Orleans, one of the world's busiest ports. If the river rises much higher at New Orleans, the Coast Guard said Thursday that it would consider restrictions on shipping, including potentially closing the channel to the largest, heaviest ships.

For the people of this region, floods from rain-swollen rivers and hurricanes are a familiar hazard. Floodwaters damaged or destroyed many homes and fishing camps in Butte LaRose in 1973, the last time the corps opened the Morganza spillway. Many residents had to wait several weeks before they could return.

Maxim Doucet was born that year. His parents stayed put, even when the floodwaters started lapping at the rear of their grocery store.

Doucet has no intention of leaving town, either. The water didn't seep into the store when the flood gauge hit 27 feet in 1973, so Doucet can't believe the center of town will be submerged in 15 feet of water if the latest forecast for 29 feet proves accurate.

While most of his neighbors were packing up, Doucet deployed a team of workers and heavy machinery to erect a 6-foot levee around his home on the banks of the Atchafalaya River. A dump truck hauled in roughly 1,000 cubic yards of clay for a bulldozer and front-end loader to fashion a protective ring around the rear of Doucet's three-story house.

"I figured I'd give Mother Nature a run for her money," said Doucet, who owns a construction company called Monster Heavy Haulers. "Money is no object when you're trying to save your house."

On the other side of Butte LaRose's main street, Russell Calais nursed a beer as his family loaded all his belongings into moving trucks. Affectionately described by one of his daughters as "a typical bull-headed Cajun," he didn't know they would be coming to evacuate him and his wife, Judy.

"We didn't give him an option," said his daughter, Konie Calais Heard of Lafayette.

The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has not announced any plans to cut short commercial or recreational fishing seasons in anticipation of Morganza's opening, but a spokeswoman said officials will monitor the situation.

 If the corps gets permission to open half of Morganza's 125 gates, water from the Mississippi is expected to arrive in Butte LaRose in about one day. Within three days, it would reach Morgan City, a community of about 12,000.

Morgan City Mayor Timothy Matte said the main floodwalls should be able to handle the river's frontal attack, but he was less certain about the back levees that protect the city from floodwaters that collect in lakes north of town. He said the waters could reach within a foot of the top of those levees.

"It is very close to the top," he said.

On Thursday, two shipyards were closed in preparation for the arrival of high water, but the town's riverboat casino remained open.

The Louisiana National Guard was raising those levees with Hesco baskets, which are sort of industrial-size sandbags. In Butte LaRose, inmates from the St. Martin Parish jail filled sandbags for residents to pick up. Some wondered if it was a futile gesture.

 

Water from the swollen Mississippi River poured over a century-old levee in northeastern Louisiana on Thursday, flooding 4,900 hectares of corn and soybeans despite farmers' frantic efforts to shore up the structure.

Downstream, officials with the Port of New Orleans said the Coast Guard could close the river to ships as early as Monday, halting traffic on one of the world's busiest commercial waterways.

After swamping low-lying neighbourhoods in Memphis, Tenn., earlier this week, the rising water is bringing misery to farms and small waterfront communities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas.

The Corps of Engineers is considering whether to open the Morganza spillway, which would flood thousands of homes and acres of farmland along a 160-kilometre stretch in Louisiana but take the pressure off levees and help to protect Baton Rouge, New Orleans and the oil refineries in between.

A decision is expected in the next several days.

Farmer despairs over threat to crops

In Bunche's Bend, in the northeast corner of Louisiana, there was heartbreak in the voice of farmer Ted Schneider, 50, as he watched the muddy river creep into 1,100 hectares of soybeans.

"It's kind of discouraging to look out here and think about all that work and money and know it is all going to be gone in a few days," said Schneider, who has farmed the land since 1984.

Maintenance on the levee was abandoned years ago after a higher levee was built farther back, leaving a sliver of farmland in between vulnerable. Officials are confident the higher levee will hold, but that's small comfort to the farmers whose land is flooding.

About 40 of them worked in recent days to stack 1,800 sandbags along the older levee's weakest points, but their efforts were no match for the river, which crested higher than originally forecast.

Farther south, other communities were keeping a close watch on their levees and taking action to shore up potential trouble spots.

Sandbags were being placed along a portion of New Orleans' French Quarter riverfront, though the city isn't expecting a major impact from the flood.

Chris Bonura, a spokesman for the Port of New Orleans, said the Coast Guard plans to close a 300-kilometre stretch of river from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico when the water reaches the 5.5-metre level at a gauge in Carrollton, which could happen by Monday.

The mouth of the Mississippi would become a parking lot, though some ships might be diverted to other ports.

Shipping would stop

Barges headed south from the U.S. heartland to the Port of South Louisiana at Reserve, upriver from New Orleans, would be unable to reach grain elevators. Massive ships that carry U.S. corn, soybeans and other crops out of the country would be unable to move.

Shipments of Venezuelan heavy crude oil that come in by tanker to a refinery in Chalmette would be locked out of the river, though most refineries on the river are fed by pipelines.

In the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta, meanwhile, people waited uneasily to see how high the water would get. About 600 homes in the Delta have flooded in the past several days as the water has risen toward some of the highest levels on record.

"It's getting scary," said Rita Harris, 43, who lives in a tiny wooden house in the shadow of the levee in Rena Lara, a town of about 500. "They won't let you go up there to look at the water."

The flood crest is expected to push past the Delta by late next week.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour urged people to get out if they think there is even a chance their homes will flood.

Tributaries are also backing up because the Mississippi is so high there is no place for the water to go.

"More than anything else, save your life and don't put at risk other people who might have to come in and save your lives," he said.

Swollen by weeks of heavy rain and snowmelt, the Mississippi River has been breaking high-water records that have stood since the 1920s and '30s. It is projected to crest at Vicksburg on May 19 and shatter the mark set there during the cataclysmic Great Flood of 1927. The crest is expected to reach New Orleans on May 23.