Flooding creeps over Cajun country

Posted: May 16, 2011

KROTZ SPRINGS, La. - Deputies warned people Sunday to get out as Mississippi River water gushing through a floodgate for the first time in nearly four decades crept closer to communities in Louisiana Cajun country, slowly filling a river basin like a giant bathtub.

Most residents heeded the warnings and headed for higher ground, even in places where there had not been so much as a trickle, hopeful that the flooding engineered to protect New Orleans and Baton Rouge would be merciful to their way of life.

Days ago, many of the towns known for their Cajun culture and drawling dialect fluttered with activity as people filled sandbags and cleared out belongings. By Sunday, some areas were virtually empty as the water from the Mississippi River, swollen by snowmelt and heavy rains, slowly rolled across the Atchafalaya River basin. It first started to come, in small amounts, into people's yards in Melville on Sunday. But it had yet to move farther downstream.

The floodwaters could reach depths of 20 feet in the coming weeks.

The spillway's opening diverted water from heavily populated New Orleans and Baton Rouge, along with chemical plants and oil refineries along the Mississippi's lower reaches, easing pressure on the levees in the hope of avoiding potentially catastrophic floods.

In Melville, about 11 miles north of Krotz Springs, water was starting to creep into some backyards. Parts of the town not protected by levees were under a mandatory evacuation order. Glenda Maddox's husband had temporarily reopened the gas station he closed in December so people could fuel up.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen," she said. The station's shelves were mostly bare, save for a few soft drinks and bottles of motor oil. Only cash was accepted.

In Butte LaRose, 50 miles downstream from where the Morganza spillway was opened, no water was expected until late Sunday at the earliest.

Chalmers Wheat, 54, was among the few left - and he was headed for his father's home in Baton Rouge, outside the flood zone. He and his brother were making final preparations to protect his home with plastic sheeting and sandbags. "It's almost like a ghost town," he said.

Sandbags were still available in the center of town, but there were few takers Sunday. Krotz Springs is only 20 miles downstream from the floodgates, and deputies ordered people to evacuate Sunday morning even though the water had not yet arrived.

Wayne Duplechain, who lives in the parish about eight miles outside Krotz Springs, said his family would stay in a camper parked on his son's property outside the flood zone. He hoped to return, though, and ride out the flooding. He has three layers of sandbags stacked 2 feet high surrounding his ranch-style, brick house, and he figures the water will not start lapping against them for seven or eight days. He has a generator and a boat to escape in if the water gets too high.

"It's going to be slow-rising, so I'll get out if I have to," he said. "If it comes over the sandbags, I'm leaving."

It will be at least a week before the Mississippi River crest arrives at the Morganza spillway, where officials opened two massive gates Saturday and two more Sunday. There are 125 in all. The Mississippi has broken river-level records that had held since the 1920s in some places.