Officials see long flood fight ahead

Published 12:02 am Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT A Vidalia Dock and Storage employee attaches a cable to a large sand bag so it can be moved from a barge to the Vidalia Convention Center Tuesday afternoon, to plug a hole at the north end of the center.

NATCHEZ — When local cities or government agencies try to keep back the rising Mississippi River, it’s often called a flood fight — and that’s the language they use, of fighting and never giving up.

The river at Natchez is expected to stand at a record-high 62 feet this morning, just one foot shy of its projected May 21 crest.

For perspective, that’s 14 feet above flood stage and a whopping 25-plus feet above the historic average stage for this time of year.

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — A crane moves large sand bags from a barge to the Vidalia Convention Center Tuesday afternoon in order to plug a sand boil caused by the rising waters of the Mississippi River.

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“We have a long fight ahead of us, 30 days for the duration of this flood — that’s the longest I’ve ever seen,” Fifth Levee District President Reynold Minsky said. “But we have people on the ground that are doing what they are supposed to do, and if we need more help we can call on any resource in the state of Louisiana to get what we need.”

The flood fight thus far has been battling sand boils, which result when pressure from the river forces water under the levee, displacing soil and forming a hole. Boils can be addressed by building a ring well of sandbags around them, allowing the water pressure to equalize before the boil is plugged.

Boils the levee district is fighting right now include ones at Lake St. John and Lake Bruin, Boggy Bay and at the Henderson Project in East Carroll Parish, Minsky said.

“The levee is not going to give away,” he said. “We are not going to lose the levee, we are not going to overtop.

“There are no boils in Concordia that are not under control — we are in excellent shape. If we haven’t fixed it we will (have fixed) it by (Tuesday).”

In Vidalia, the city wasn’t fighting a boil, but it was something akin to it.

On the riverfront, what is suspected to be an abandoned drain blew out late Sunday evening, allowing water into areas on the flooded riverfront that had theretofore been protected by the Hesco Bastion instant levees.

As water filled the area surrounding the convention center, the city tried Monday to drop 2,500-pound sandbags into the hole by helicopter, but had to abort the mission because the aircraft were causing too much turbulence against the instant levees.

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — US Army Corps of Engineers work Tuesday afternoon to further protect Silver Street from the predicted Mississippi River flood in Natchez.

The hole was successfully plugged Monday evening, however, when the city was able to get a barge from Vidalia Dock and Storage and a track hoe from Camo Construction to drop the extra-large sandbags into the hole, Mayor Hyram Copeland said.

“We secured that hole, which is kind of amazing,” he said.

Tuesday, efforts were concentrated on shoring up the Hesco boxes on the northern side of the convention center, near where the leak occurred.

“We are shoring that up again,” Copeland said. “We are holding our own and we have the water where we want it to be as far as the convention center is concerned — we do not have water in the building itself.”

The rest of the buildings on the riverfront are secure and the instant levees around them are holding, and Copeland said while some seepage water has come through the Hesco boxes, pumps are keeping it under control.

Across the river, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started placing 150 tons of riprap on the riverbank Tuesday to prevent further erosion at Natchez Under-the-Hill.

The Natchez Fire Department has a boat waiting in the river for safety purposes while the crews work near the rapidly moving water, Natchez City Engineer David Gardner said.

The city is also having to fight seepage water flooding the sewage lift station Under-the-Hill, and a piece of equipment that alternates the work between two pumps in the station had to be replaced Monday, Gardner said.

“We were concerned about that because those pumps are not designed to run constantly,” he said.

“We pumped it down and found some areas where the water is escaping through the sandbags, and we are keeping those sealed up.

“We are holding the water back the best we can. It is not perfect but it is not as much (water) as it was.”

Keeping the sewer lift station clear of water allows the businesses Under-the-Hill to remain open, Gardner said.

While the area waits to see what the floodwaters will do next, no emergency shelters in Adams County are open and no are plans in place to open shelters, Adams County Emergency Management Director Stan Owens said.

However, American Red Cross representatives have been doing site checks in some areas to be prepared in the event on an evacuation.

“We’re just preparing for the worst,” Owens said.

In other flood related news, a representative from the Mississippi State Department of Health is advising residents to avoid contact with floodwaters.

MDH district health officer Thomas Dobbs said chances are high that the flooded Mississippi River is contaminated with runoff from septic tanks or farming chemicals.

“There is a very good chance the (river) water is contaminated with harmful germs,” he said.

If residents are exposed to the water, especially if they have a cut or sore, they should immediately wash off and apply antibacterial medicine to exposed wounds, Dobbs said.

Dobbs also advised those without up-to-date tetanus shots to get the vaccination shots if they are exposed to the floodwaters, particularly if they have a wound.

Likewise, Dobbs said to make sure children avoid puddles.

-Emily Lane contributed to this report.