Rolling Fork Ready To Confront Ol' Man River

Thousands of acres of the Mississippi Delta are being inundated by floodwaters. Backwater levees along the Yazoo River, which feeds into the Mississippi, are not high enough to withstand this record flood. One town in the danger zone is Rolling Fork, which was home to legendary Mississippi bluesman Muddy Waters.

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Many years ago, Mark Twain wrote: The Mississippi River will always have its own way. No engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.

We're in the midst of another test of that proposition. A massive network of levees and floodgates is supposed to protect real estate along the river. In many cases it has, though many riverfront communities and farmland are underwater in Mississippi and elsewhere.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports on the latest test of the flood control system.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The catastrophe officials are trying to prevent is a washout of what's known as the backwater levee - not the mainline barrier that runs right along the Mississippi, but the one that protects towns inland from the Yazoo River.

Peter Nimrod is chief engineer for the Mississippi Levee Board.

PETER NIMROD: It is a levee that is actually designed to overtop when we get to a certain stage, allowing pressure to get off the whole Mississippi River, just like a floodway would do in other areas.

ELLIOTT: And this historic flood, he says, will overtop the backwater levee, and it will remain underwater for about 10 days. Nimrod says the Army Corps of Engineers has shored it up with vinyl sheeting in hopes it can withstand the flow.

NIMROD: But if that overtopping effect actually weakens that levee and the levee actually fails, all of sudden we have thousands of homes underwater. We have towns underwater. Rolling Fork, Mississippi would be underwater and everything below that would be underwater. So this is a terrible event.

ELLIOTT: Nimrod says that would be the worst case scenario, and is the difference between about 300,000 acres underwater or 1.2 million acres inundated.

JAMES DENSON: We are getting ready to have a confrontation with Old Man River.

ELLIOTT: James Denson is mayor of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, a town of about 2,800 people best known as blues legend Muddy Waters' stomping grounds. He says the city is putting out sandbags on the edge of town, but hasn't recommended any evacuations yet.

DENSON: We're trying to prepare for the worst and expect the best that we can get.

ELLIOTT: On the corner of Magnolia and Delta Street, a group of men gather at the end of the work day at Gregory Diggs' shop.

GREGORY DIGGS: At 97.8...

(SOUNDBITE OF HAND CLAP)

DIGGS: ...sea level, so, the highest point in Rolling Fork. If it gets here, I got to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAND CLAP)

ELLIOTT: Diggs says the folks in town are not prepared for what could be coming.

NIMROD: People know, you got people in low-lying areas ma'am, that they don't even know how to drive to Vicksburg. They don't know what to do, or who to talk to.

ELLIOTT: Diggs says he and his wife have the means to go if the levee breaks. But he says a lot of people in Rolling Fork are too poor to move, and no one is telling them how to get out or giving them money to live on should water reach the town. It would take weeks to recede.

Diggs' sister, Freddie Smith, is a retired teacher and doesn't want to chance it. Last night, she asked Diggs to help her get out of town.

FREDDIE SMITH: I live in a mobile home over there, and I haven't been hearing a lot of news. I been watching television, but they're not saying a whole lot about what's happening here and we're getting a whole lot of stories. I don't have any transportation, and I don't want to get stuck here in the middle of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE)

ELLIOTT: Back at the shop, 33-year-old Aveon Davis says no one is looking out for the people of Rolling Fork.

AVEON DAVIS: If it do come and hit, there's going to be a lot of people die, trying to stay. Just like in New Orleans, how it went down. I tell them people not trying to save you. They're not coming. You're on your own.

ELLIOTT: Davis says he won't come back if it floods, because he's not sure there would be anything to come back to. That's something you hear in other parts of town, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF PNEUMATIC DRILL)

ELLIOTT: At the P and P tire store on Highway 61, Rolling Fork native Joey Walden says the town is already struggling economically, and a flood could do it in.

JOEY WALDEN: If we get run out of this Delta, I don't believe I will come back, because it won't be much to come back to. It sure won't. There won't be no livelihood here.

ELLIOTT: He's praying that the backwater levee won't give way.

WALDEN: That's all we can do, hope and pray it don't happen. If God held the Red Sea, he could surely hold this.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Vicksburg, Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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