Officials say floodwaters to linger into June

Published 4:36 pm Thursday, May 19, 2011

VICKSBURG (AP) — The Army Corps of Engineers and local officials are warning Vicksburg residents that they should not think that Thursday’s expected crest of the Mississippi River means the end of the flood.

At a news conference on a bluff overlooking the river, Col. Jeffrey R. Eckstein, commander of the Corps’ Vicksburg District, said water could remain at the record 57.1 feet level for a week and he said the river could remain about flood stage until the middle of June. Flood stage at Vicksburg is 43 feet.

“The crest is by no means the end of it,” Eckstein said.

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Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division, said the recent flooding put tremendous pressure on the $13 billion Mississippi River levee system.

He said officials will hurry to correct any “major damage that has been done to the system” before next year’s flood season.

When the river gets this high, it causes sand boils, seepage under the levee and erosion. Officials said the levee system was working as designed and there was little threat of breeches.

Walsh said sediment could be expected in harbors and ports along the river, which could have some future impact on maritime traffic.

Earlier, a man died Thursday after being pulled from the floodwaters overflowing from the Mississippi River, becoming what is believed to be the first Mississippi flood casualty since the river started spilling into Mississippi and Louisiana.

Walter Cook, 69, had been pulled from the water a day earlier by two firefighters on boat patrol in downtown Vicksburg. Cook had been clinging to a fence in chest-deep water, but he was floating in the water by the time the firefighters got to him, said Fire Chief Charles Atkins.

Warren County Coroner Doug Huskey initially said he was going to ask for an autopsy to confirm the cause of death but later Thursday said he changed his mind after talking to Cook’s family and doctors at River Region Medical Center in Vicksburg. Doctors said Cook died of “hypoxic brain injury due to drowning.” Hypoxia is an abnormal condition resulting from a decrease in the oxygen supplied to or utilized by body tissue.

Friends and neighbors described Cook as a nice man who lived alone and kept to himself, but appeared troubled.

His favorite place was a restaurant not far from his home, the Klondyke, said owner David Day. He said Cook came in asking for a lighter.

He walked about a block through several inches of water to get to the restaurant, Police Chief Walter Armstrong said.

Day said he gave Cook a lighter and thought he was going home, but instead Cook went deeper into the water. Day said he yelled a warning to Cook but he kept going.

Soon after, Cook collapsed. He was taken to River Region Medical Center but died early Thursday morning.

“Everybody knew him around here. He was like family, really,” Day said.

In one of Vicksburg’s hardest-hit areas, 38-year-old mechanic Chris Lynn has paddled a small aluminum boat across his flooded property every day to mark the water line on his shop. Floodwater has crept close to his mobile home, though it has yet to go in.

“My son died in a car accident a few months ago, so this ain’t nothing,” Lynn said. “But to a lot of people, it is.”

The story of the flood isn’t so much on the water as it is in the shelters, campers and crowded homes on higher ground that have been opened to victims. Take James Phenix, a 57-year-old painter who sat Wednesday against a pole outside the church with his head hung low.

“It’s difficult because I stayed in a family home. It had a lot of sentimental value,” he said. “I’m just stuck here waiting till the water breaks. Things got to get better.”

In Sharkey County, board of supervisors president Bill Newsom isn’t celebrating yet.

“I’ll celebrate when we get below flood stage, but I’m very pleased that we didn’t have any major flooding,” said Newsom. “I’m also pleased at how all the agencies that were available came to our aide. There were measures put in place should a major flood had occurred.”

In the Greenville area Peter Nimrod, chief engineer of the Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners, said when the river does recede, Nimrod said priority will be to inspect the levee.

“The levee is in great shape, but we don’t know what (damage) may have happened,” he said. “When the water goes down, we will do a thorough job of inspecting the levee. We had some problem areas with sand boils, and that was – and is – going to happen in an event such as this. We’re going to clear up any problems that may have occurred.”

In Natchez, the Mississippi River was continuing a slow rise toward its predicted crest of 62.1 on Saturday.

The city shut down the sewage lift to businesses at Natchez Under-the-Hill on Wednesday.

City Engineer David Gardner said water apparently entered the sewage lift area from the top hatch, forcing water pumps to be overworked. Gardner said one of the pumps broke Wednesday, resulting in the decision to shut off the sewer.

Gardner said when the river level drops back down to 60 feet, which is forecasted to occur among the first days of June, the sewage lift will likely be back online.

Magnolia Grill owner John Parks said the restaurant is going to “Plan B with Port-O-Johns, disposable dishes, and we’re changing up the menu a little bit.”

The Under-the-Hill Saloon remains open with the use of portable toilets as bathroom facilities.