Flooding Surges Down Mississippi River

What will likely come to be known as "the great flood" of 2011 is rolling down the Mississippi River. High water now threatens communities in the Mississippi Delta, and people there are anxiously wondering if the levees will hold.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

What will likely come to be known as the great flood of 2011 is rolling down the Mississippi River. High water now threatens communities in the Mississippi Delta.

As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, people there are anxiously wondering if the levees will hold.

Ms. ADELIA SUTTON(ph): Hey, how are you doing?

Unidentified Man: Good.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: In downtown Greenville, Mississippi, residents climb up on the levee to keep tabs on the rising river.

Ms. SUTTON: OK. When they get right there, I'm going to run, you all. Everybody what to know when it get right here, I'm going to run.

ELLIOTT: Fifty-nine-year-old Adelia Sutton is pointing to a spot halfway up the levee. She says she's never seen the water so high. Like everyone else here, she's counting on the levee to hold and protect her home in Greenville. But just in case...

Ms. SUTTON: I got my suitcase at the front door. I've got my important paper and books on the table ready to go, ready to go.

ELLIOTT: Officials say flood waters have already reached about a thousand homes in Mississippi, most of them in low-lying areas on the unprotected side of the levee system that stretches from Memphis to Vicksburg. As the water surges southward, levee boards and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shoring up the levees and opening spillways to prevent New Orleans from being inundated.

But that means tradeoffs. Large parts of Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin will flood, and so will parts of the lower Mississippi Delta, according to Peter Nimrod, chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board.

Mr. PETER NIMROD (Chief Engineer, Mississippi Levee Board): We're going to have a couple of hundred thousand acres underwater. It's going to be a lot of farmland, it's going to be a lot of woods that are going to be flooded with this event.

ELLIOTT: Nimrod says the mainline levees on the Mississippi should hold, protecting most neighborhoods in towns like Greenville. But the backwater levees along the Yazoo River are likely to be topped.

Mr. NIMROD: This is not a hundred-year flood on the Mississippi River. This - I don't know what it is yet. We'll have to wait until it crests out to figure out exactly what it is. But this is going to be a multi-hundred year flood event.

OK, so, you know, you make plans for a hundred-year event, and then you see something with this magnitude coming at you. You just don't really plan for that.

(Soundbite of tractor)

ELLIOTT: Farmers in the danger zone are rushing to protect what they can. Near Carter, Mississippi, farmhand Norman Souto has spent the last four days driving a tractor through his employer's crop, scooping up the soil to build an earthen dam around the farmhouse and grain silos.

Mr. NORMAN SOUTO (Farmhand): Oh, we're cutting off this wheat field here. And we take the wheat field and take it out of the way, and we're cutting the dirt and building up the levee.

ELLIOTT: Muddy water is already seeping into the fields, making the chore even harder. But floods like this are what make the Delta such fertile ground. For hundreds of years, the Mississippi has overrun its banks.

Ms. PRINCELLA NOWELL (Mississippi Delta Historian): Well, in my case, we've been here since 1825.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NOWELL: And I like to joke with people and say we've been through so many floods that I've got webbed toes and watermarks up to my knees.

ELLIOTT: Greenville native and local historian Princella Nowell says people forget that the delta is all about flooding. Her father lived through the devastating 1927 flood that prompted the U.S. government put in place the extensive protection system that everyone is counting on today.

Ms. NOWELL: And of course the levees have never been tested this high. This is the highest water. So they've never been tested. And everybody feels sure and secure that they're going to hold. But that's, you know, if it doesn't rain, if something doesn't happen - if, if and if.

ELLIOTT: She's watching people gather on the levee in Greenville to check on the river and worries that they're not as prepared as the locals were back in 1927.

Ms. NOWELL: In '27, they were resilient and resourceful. Everybody had a boat. And now nobody has a boat, and nobody knows what to do. It's sort of a quiet panic, I guess, because they are just waiting to see if it's going to hold and then make their move.

ELLIOTT: That's exactly what Alice Holmes is doing

Ms. ALICE HOLMES: I don't know where I'd go, but I'm prepared to leave. I'm just afraid that when I leave, what do I come back to?

ELLIOTT: The 60-year-old retired seamstress doesn't have flood insurance.

Ms. HOLMES: It's frightening. Financially, it will affect a lot of people, and emotionally it will affect a lot of people. And I don't know if some of us can recover from it. I don't know.

ELLIOTT: Holmes says the Delta is a place where most people live paycheck to paycheck, if they even have one. So a widespread flood would be devastating. It puts a lot on your heart, she says.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News in the Mississippi Delta.

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