River takes slow, steady path back to normalcy

Published 12:02 am Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat — An alligator tries to climb one of the Hesco Bastion instant levees around Riverpark Medical Center Monday afternoon. A dirty line left from the highest point of the flood rings the plastic sheeting that cover the instant levees.

NATCHEZ — The slow but steady fall of the Mississippi River continued Monday slightly faster than originally predicted.

The river stood at 61.07 Monday night, but it still isn’t expected to drop below 60 until Friday or Saturday. At its highest point Monday, the river reached 61.9.

“Mother Nature is tricky to predict, but now we’re thinking (it will continue to go down),” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Justin Ward said.

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But because barges will soon travel upriver again, Lee Jones, owner of J.M. Jones Lumber Company, said his business will continue to be jeopardized.

“We’re getting ready (today) for the insane opening of the river to this upriver traffic,” he said. “There are three boats coming upriver today. And they’re devastating — the wake of the boats makes waves that come crashing into our levees, and the levees all over Concordia Parish and Silver Street.”

So far, Jones said, his only complaint has been with the re-opening of the river.

Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat — An egret gets a good view of the flooded Vidalia Riverfront from one of the crape myrtle trees in the parking lot of the Riverfront Royale Spa Monday afternoon.

River traffic at Baton Rouge was closed late last week after three barges sank.

“The port of Baton Rouge opened up the river last night, I think at 9 p.m., and so these barges are streaming upriver to make their rounds, which is madness, it’s total madness,” he said. “They should shut this river down until the river drops to 57 feet … which isn’t going to be that long.”

Moreover, he said, the lumber company is still dealing with leaks in the levee.

“We’re constantly working on (the levees),” Jones said. “We’re having seepage problems — when the moisture comes through the levees, in the ground under the levees — three or four different places a day.

“Sometimes we put sandbags on them, sometimes we put dirt, sometimes we do both,” he said.

Jones isn’t the only one still struggling. The Fifth District Levee Board continues to patrol daily, checking for sand boils, which occur when water is pushed under the levee, causing soil displacement, Board President Reynold Minsky said.

While Lake Bruin’s 15-20 cubic yard boil demanded immediate attention, Lake St. John has significant boils of its own, Minsky said.

“The Lake Bruin boil is now contained — I never say under control because you don’t know what (boils) will do,” he said. “St. John has a number of sand boils; probably not quite as large as (Lake Bruin’s), for the most part, but they’re all bad in my opinion,” he said.

The boils, he said, are bringing in sand and water, black dirt (also called heavy dirt) and water, or sometimes both of the mixtures simultaneously.

“I’m not too concerned as long as the sandbagging holds,” Minsky said. “The (boils) that are undetected are the ones that have me concerned.”

As the floodwaters recede on the Vidalia Riverfront, a water line that marks the river’s crest is left on the entrance sign and landscaping Monday afternoon.

But Minsky said he’s “awfully confident” the levees will hold.

“There might be mudslides, maybe,” he said. “But the levee won’t be gone entirely. It would be minor, as far as levees go.”

Still, Jones said he and his crew have been doing whatever is necessary to try to save the company.

“I feel better only because we have survived a week, but we have another week and a half that we have to survive, and I don’t know whether we will or not,” Jones said.

“I think we have a good chance.”

But Jones continued to express deep concern about the wake passing barges will cause.

“They’re putting barges back on hot and heavy (today), and we’ve got another week just white knuckling it before the river drops.

“I do feel better, but not much better,” he added.

Nonetheless, Minsky said although more boils continue to pop up, he’s still pleased that the water level is dropping.

“It’s better falling a foot than rising a foot,” he said.