Slow migration unfolds in flood’s path

Published 1:46 pm Thursday, May 12, 2011

YAZOO CITY, Miss. (AP) — A slow migration is unfolding here with people and animals seeking higher ground to escape the flooding from the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Brett Robinson drove slowly down River Road near his Yazoo City farm on Thursday, staring at corn fields that are beginning to look like lakes. He stopped his truck, pulled out a rifle and shot a wild hog swimming through his corn. He knows he’ll lose the crops to the flood anyway, but that hog could be a nuisance even longer than the water.

“We lose a lot of crops to them,” he said of wild pigs. “We can lose 40 acres in a night. They can give birth three times a year and have 15 in a litter.”

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Wild pigs multiply faster than farmers, hunters and wildlife officials can deal with them. The flood is driving them into the open, giving farmers an opportunity to kill them. Other animals are also trying to escape the water.

Not far from the pig, a raccoon clung to the top of power pole above several feet of water. A snake swam by in flooded corn. Ants are seemingly everywhere. Fish tried to swim against the current of water washing over a road.

Officials have warned that flooding could push large animals like deer into more populated areas and onto roads, where they are major hazard for motorists. Flooding threatens to liberate thousands of catfish from farm ponds.

Robinson’s son, 4-year-old Seth, threw rocks into a flooded field as his father described the flood preparations he’s making. He moved his farming equipment to higher ground or put it on pallets. He built a levee around his new brick house.

“Maybe the water will go down in time to plant a second crop,” he said.

The only thing he can do is wait and see, which has become a way of life in the Mississippi Delta. Residents watch the flood creep closer every day to their crops and homes and there’s little they can do but wonder how bad it will be.

“Waiting is the hardest part,” said Ed Jordan, whose family has farmed in the Carter community for four generations. “Everybody around here is going to catch the blues. This is the true Mississippi blues.”

Andy Prosser, a spokesman with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture, said 1.4 million acres in Mississippi could flood. About 600,000 acres of that is in cultivated row crops. Winter wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton and rice could take a hard hit.

“Some people will be able to continue,” Prosser said. “It depends on the level of damage. We don’t know if it’s going to put farmers out of business. It very well could … We won’t know the total devastation station until the water recedes.”

Skip Scaggs, division director for existing industry and businesses at the Mississippi Development Authority, said the agency is using computer mapping to try to identify businesses, from convenience stores to petroleum-related businesses, that could be flooded.

“It’s difficult to say exactly how many will be impacted,” he said. “It’s unfortunately a wait-and-see approach, but we are taking steps to have a plan in place for when the president makes a declaration so we can guide those businesses to some assistance.”

In Vicksburg, officials on Thursday closed part of a low-lying main road that leads from downtown to the Port of Vicksburg because water was crossing the road. The port remained open and could be reached by detours of a few miles.

“This is going to be a flood that Vicksburg and Warren County will always remember,” Michael Mayfield, Vicksburg’s north ward alderman, said Thursday outside City Hall, which sits on a bluff high above the river.

Mayfield said he knows dozens of homes will be deluged but he’s keeping his fingers crossed that levees will hold.

“It’s kind of hard for me to cross my toes, but I’m trying that, too,” Mayfield said.

Vicksburg alderman Michael Mayfield said his father, who’s in his 80s, is a longtime Baptist minister.

“He always says, ‘Whatever prayer doesn’t fix, can’t be done,'” said Mayfield, 54.

When it comes to seeking protection from the rising Mississippi River and its backwaters, Mayfield said with a smile that he’s relying on “prayer first, then the Corps of Engineers.”

“As much as I love ’em, I’ve got to put them second,” Mayfield said of the corps, one of Vicksburg’s largest employers.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation said U.S. Highway 61 will close Thursday on both sides of the Yazoo River bridge. Warren County ordered the evacuation of about 400 residents on the north and south ends of the highway as the water was predicted to flood the road by the weekend.

MDOT engineer Kevin Magee said U.S. 61 South at the Big Black River was expected to close by Saturday, which will cut off north-south access to and from Vicksburg on U.S. 61. Parts of Mississippi Highway 3 in Redwood were expected to close Sunday.

MDOT said traffic alerts were planned on Interstate 20 out of Jackson and in northeast Louisiana to warn motorists.

Warren County officials continued visits to residents around Redwood and Yokena urging them to leave their homes, Emergency Management Agency Operations Officer Sam Barnes said after supervisors OK’d a general evacuation order “for certain areas to be adversely affected by the closing of state highways and county roads.”

In Greenville, the top of the hill overlooking the levee has drawn numerous of residents who climb steeps stairs to glimpse the rising river.

“You have to know the area and the land to know the depths of it,” said Terrance Johnson, 38.

Johnson said he’s among those who are preparing for a quick evacuation if the Mississippi River overtops the levee and floods the city’s downtown area and neighborhoods. Officials have said that’s unlikely. Areas on the unprotected side of the levee, including Lake Ferguson have been flooded, leaving homes underwater.

Gov. Haley Barbour has urged residents all across the south Delta to leave their homes if there’s the potential for flooding.

Barbour said there’s an area of the Delta — along an eastern strip of the Will Whittington auxiliary channel — that will see water elevation 107 feet above sea level. That’s because the area is without levee protection. The elevation will put areas underwater from Warren County to southern Holmes County.

Barbour has said the National Guard will be deployed to areas from Washington County south to southern Sharkey County in case there’s a breach of the Yazoo Backwater Levee.

Johnson said his family has packed a few things already. Johnson said evacuating would be more difficult for him because he’s quadriplegic.

“Finding living arrangements would be harder, considering my equipment and needs,” he said. “We’ve already got things gassed up and personal care items packed.”

President Barack Obama has declared a disaster in 14 Mississippi counties. The declaration makes housing and loan assistance available to residents of Adams, Bolivar, Claiborne, Coahoma, DeSoto, Humphreys, Issaquena, Jefferson, Sharkey, Tunica, Warren, Washington, Wilkinson and Yazoo counties. Other counties could be added as the flood spreads.

Projections by the Corps of Engineers show the most extensive flooding won’t take place on the Mississippi itself but in the tributaries northeast of Vicksburg.

Adams County Emergency Management Director Stan Owens said six emergency shelters are being prepared in the county, but the locations of those shelters will not be released until a call for evacuations is made.