With flood preparations complete, Vidalia watches, waits

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 11, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Hesco Barriers surround the Comfort Inn hotel on the Riverfront in Vidalia Tuesday afternoon. The barriers have been placed around several places on the Riverfront to prevent major damages that might be caused by the predicted Mississippi River flood.

VIDALIA — “Vigilance” has become the watchword in Concordia Parish.

The swollen Mississippi River is projected to stand at 58.3 feet this morning, surpassing the February 1937 record high of 58.04. It is rising just shy of a foot over the course of 24 hours.

Construction of temporary floodwalls meant to protect millions of dollars of public and private infrastructure between the levee system and the rising Mississippi River on the Vidalia riverfront was completed Tuesday.

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Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland said the next step in the flood fight is a matter of watching and waiting.

“We have done just about everything we can do now,” Copeland said. “Now we will monitor it and make sure it holds.

“The next step we are going to take, we secure the riverfront with security, we will be monitoring for any kind of leakage, and that is all we can do until (the river) starts descending.”

While Vidalia focuses on keeping the flood waters away from the municipal wells, medical facilities, the convention center and hotel on the riverfront, efforts to ensure the levees stay strong are accelerating across the greater Louisiana Delta.

Louisiana Fifth Levee District Commissioner Barry Maxwell said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Louisiana National Guard, local sheriff’s departments and the levee district — including himself — are patrolling the levees 24 hours a day.

The levee district spans from East Carroll Parish at the Arkansas border to Concordia Parish, and observers on patrol are keeping their eyes open for sand boils and slides.

Ellis Johnson throws sandbags around the Hesco barriers that surround Riverpark Medical Center on the Vidalia Riverfront Tuesday afternoon.

A sand boil is the result of water pressure from the river displacing soil from under the levee, and a slide happens when a portion of a levee sloughs off.

Sand boils are addressed by building a temporary relief well out of sandbags around the boil. Water pressure in the well eventually equalizes with that of the river, ending the soil displacement.

In 2008, the last time the river was at these levels, the levees had approximately 50 slides, Maxwell said.

“All of those have since been repaired, and we have none as of now,” he said.

And while all of the help from outside jurisdictions is appreciated, Maxwell said not everyone on the levee is welcome.

“We are still having some problems with sightseers who want to ride the levee, but all of the levee that is not paved is off limits — you’re not supposed to be riding on the gravel portions,” he said.

Likewise, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development announced Tuesday that the Concordia Parish portions of Louisiana 3196 and Louisiana 15 that are situated on top of the levee system would be closed to all traffic other than passenger vehicles.

Those restrictions apply to both heavy trucks and farm equipment.

“Due to the large amount of water, the levee structures are weakening, so we are limiting the large vehicles that weigh more to protect the levees,” DOTD Public Information Officer Lauren Lee said.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said in a statement Tuesday her staff was working to ensure that proper support was being given to local governments in their flood fights.

“We will not get a second chance to get this right,” Landrieu said.

“After hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike — as well as the oil spill — Louisiana can ill-afford another large-scale disaster.  Billions of dollars in property is at stake, not to mention the threat to human life.  It is imperative that communities along the river, large and small, have the resources they need to protect their families and homes.”

The playground near the River View RV Park and Resort in Vidalia has flooded due to the rising water levels of the Mississippi River Tuesday afternoon. The river is predicted to crest at 64 feet by May 21.

Even as people turn a wary eye toward the levee system, Concordia Parish Sheriff Randy Maxwell said residents should be vigilant against scammers out to take advantage of flood fears, and to report suspicious activity right away.

“We’re already receiving calls about people coming out of the woodwork and offering to watch people’s homes if they evacuate,” Maxwell said. “There is absolutely no one authorized to watch people’s homes other than law enforcement and the National Guard if there’s an evacuation.”

The possibility of an evacuation has also prompted the sheriff’s office to request that those who may require assistance evacuating — the bedridden or those with major medical issues that would hinder them — contact local law enforcement agencies with their vital information.

“Our office, the Vidalia police or Ferriday police need to know their vital information ahead of time — their names, addresses, phone numbers, etc., so we will know precisely how to contact these residents in the event that an evacuation becomes necessary,” Maxwell said.

“We want to be as prepared as possible in case of any emergency that could arise, just like we’ve been asking area residents to do. Public safety is the top priority.”

The Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office can be reached at 318-336-5231, 318-757-3162 or 318- 386-2200.

The Vidalia Police Department can be reached at 318-336-5254, and the number for the Ferriday Police Department is 318-757-3606.