Fears grips Mississippi River communities

Published 11:10 am Wednesday, May 11, 2011

RENA LARA, Miss. (AP) — The dump trucks start rolling about 7 a.m., hauling dirt up a gravel road to the levee at Rena Lara, and they don’t stop until dusk.

Rita Harris has been watching them pass in front of her little wooden house, the last one on the road before your reach the levee at Desoto Lake.

“It’s getting scary,” said Harris, 43. “They won’t let you go up there to look at the water.”

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But Kelly Greenwood, chief engineer and CEO of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee Board, said there’s no reason for alarm. Greenwood said his crew of 40 has been dumping the dirt to reinforce the levee after sand boils — churning direct caused by river water cutting under levees — and seepage were spotted.

The Mississippi River’s crest is rolling south through an area known as the Delta, counties blessed with some of the country’s most-fertile ground yet cursed by persistent poverty. All along the river’s path, residents are worried about the flood’s impact on homes and farmland, well aware of the devastation that’s been left in Memphis, Tenn., and Tunica County in Mississippi, where high water shuttered casinos and inundated homes.

Though Greenwood sought to reassure Harris by giving her a glimpse of the levee and the water lapping at its grassy sides, she still had doubts, fueled by a little seepage in her backyard. Harris said she really didn’t have anywhere to go if she had to evacuate her family, three dogs and a tomcat.

“Until I see the water coming at me, I’m going to have to stay around the house.”

Rena Lara, an unincorporated town of about 500, is in Coahoma County. A local researcher says there are two theories about the origin of the community’s name — it either comes from the names of a plantation owner’s two daughters or it’s named for a former postmaster.

There’s a post office, but little else. There’s no daily newspaper, radio station or TV station in Coahoma County, said Rep. John Mayo, who represents part of the area. Mayo said many residents in the county and in other rural towns in the Delta are getting much information via online social networks such as Facebook, or by chatting on email. Therein lies the problem, he said.

“Social media is helping to fill the void, but also helping to spread untruths,” Mayo said. “People talking to me on Facebook and e-mail, rumors are flying around that these trucks are trying to prevent the levee from breaking up. When you see ominous sights and you don’t know what they’re for, you think the worst.”

Greenwood said his crew would resume its work on Wednesday, building a short berm and packing the boils with sandbags. Greenwood said the $13 billion Mississippi River levee system, stretching from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans, is one of the best-designed systems in the world.

“The levee is safe,” Greenwood said. “We’ve had more fear-mongering during this event than all of the other events we’ve ever had here. The corps even called me and asked about a breach rumor in Tunica County. Are you kidding me?”

About 30 miles south in Rosedale, Thelma Gibson, a 68-year-old grandmother sitting in her yard, calmly said God “showed me the levees will break.”

“I told an old lady down there in the second trailer,” Gibson said, pointing. “I believe God will take care of us, but he’s going to get the good to get the bad.”

Still, Gibson said she wouldn’t evacuate yet, though her brick house is a stone’s throw from the levee.

“I’m praying that it will hold,” she said.

Police Chief David James said he’s been trying to calm elderly residents who’ve heard rumors of a levee breach there. Signs are posted at the levee that’s on the river, warning spectators to stay away. James said the warnings are to prevent heavy traffic and the weight that could put pressure on the levee.

The water was 25 feet from the top of the levee on Tuesday, he said. The swollen river has brought wildlife into Rosedale, including turkeys, deer and a 14-foot alligator that was pulled from a yard.

“The big thing now is rumor control,” he said.

Ona Phillips, who lives less than miles from the rising water, said she’s listening to the levee board.

“They’ve been here meeting for a while,” said Phillips as she bought dinner from a local convenience store. “I believe they’d let us know if we need to go.”

James, levee board officials and others had scheduled a town hall meeting Wednesday to talk with residents about the levee as the river continues to rise.

At Greenville the river is now at a record height and is projected to crest at 64.5 feet on May 16. Earlier predictions had it cresting on May 17.

On Tuesday, the river stood at 62.05 feet. The previous mark of 58.20 set on May 12, 1973.

Farther south in Natchez, the river is expected to crest at 64 feet on May 21, well above the record of 58.04 feet set in 1937.

At Vicksburg, the river on Tuesday took two more high-water steps into the history books as it pushed its way to a crest still nine days away.

The river was 52.8 feet, up nine-tenths of a foot, and climbing past the 51.6 crest in 1973 and 50.9 in 2008. The river is forecast to crest at Vicksburg on May 19 at 57.5 feet, 1.3 past the historic 1927 flood.

Meanwhile, Wednesday state officials ordered the Rainbow Casino riverboat in Vicksburg to close immediately. Two casinos remain open there but officials are watching the river and more closures could be ordered.

Mississippi has 19 casinos on the river, and 17 have been closed by the high water. The casinos bring governments about $12 million to $13 million in gambling taxes per month and employ about 13,000 workers.