Miss. River to crest at 54.4 today

Published 12:04 am Saturday, May 30, 2009

NATCHEZ — Today marks the beginning of the end of the 2009 flood that largely wasn’t.

The Mississippi River is expected to crest today at 54.4 feet, before beginning a slow fall back toward — and eventually below — flood stage.

The flood waters have filled into the usual places — Deer Park and Minorca in Concordia Parish and Anna’s Bottom and the Carthage Point area in Adams County — but some Natchez areas normally affected by the high water — Silver Street and the J.M. Jones Lumber Mill — have been able to hold it at bay this year.

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One thing that has been strongly affected, however, is river navigation.

“It’s scary,” Vidalia Dock and Storage Manager Carla Jenkins said. “You don’t really have brakes (on a boat) and all you can do is start backing on the engines to slow down.”

The high water and swift currents can make boats moving barges move at speeds of 14.5 miles per hour, which is incredibly fast for river navigation.

“With some of those big boats coming down with 30-40 barges, when I see them I just close my eyes,” she said.

The swollen river has taken over much of the Vidalia Dock and Storage yard on the Vidalia Riverfront, and while the company isn’t able to access their piles of rock inventory, which are currently islands sticking out of the water, the company did learn an important lesson from the high water of 2008.

“The second we realized the river was going to start rising, we moved all of our equipment,” Jenkins said.

And that turned out to be a good thing.

“I have been on the river for 30 years, and I have never seen it come up like it has in the last month,” Jenkins said.

“One minute we were fine, and the next minute the water was all the way up to the boat shop.”

Meanwhile, the high water has made even marking the safe navigation channels dangerous.

Once the water rises above 43 feet, the seamen attached the Natchez-based U.S. Coast Guard cutter have to suspend operations.

Normally, the Coast Guard drops buoys in the river to mark the navigation channel, and as the water rises they widen that channel, Officer-in-Charge Master Chief Stuart Slesh said.

Once the water rises above the 43-foot point, however, there is no safe place for the operation to dock at night between Natchez and Baton Rouge, he said.

“You’re trying to anchor in an area that used to be the tops of trees,” Slesh said.

Until the cutter can resume operations, those navigating the river will have to stay between the buoys dropped before the river reached the cut-off point.

“Commercial traffic has a lot of river they can travel on safely,” Slesh said.

After the river drops and the Coast Guard resumes its operations, the seamen will go out and assess damage to the riverbanks and structures along the river, and look for new hazards that may have fallen in the river since the high water.

“Our first couple of trips after high water will be very labor intensive,” Slesh said.

Flood stage at the Natchez-Vidalia pass of the Mississippi River is 48 feet.