Greenville, Miss., Waits For Big Water

Correction May 17, 2011

In this story, we misidentified the author of Lanterns on the Levees as Leroy Percy. The author was actually William Alexander Percy, Leroy's son.

The Mississippi River will crest Tuesday in Greenville, Miss. The water has reached record levels on its way to this town, but so far the levees have been holding.

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Up and down the Mississippi River, water levels are rising and records are falling. In Greenville, Mississippi, the river is now several feet higher than what engineers had predicted. It is set to crest sometime tonight or early tomorrow.

As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, residents there are anxiously watching the river's rise and hoping that miles of levees do their job.

CARRIE KAHN: It's windy and cold on top of the levees right off Main Street in downtown Greenville. But every day, Jennifer Bloodsay(ph) climbs the grass-covered hill to snap a picture.

Ms. JENNIFER BLOODSAY: I've lived here for 34 years, and I've never seen it that high. Never. Ever.

KAHN: It's so high that the riverfront casinos are flooded. So is the yacht club. And you can only see the top of the gazebo of what was a kids' park.

Five-year old Daniella Lewis, who's holding tight to the bottom of her Dad's shirt, says she's sad the river has swallowed everything.

Ms. DANIELLA LEWIS: I feel really bad about it.

KAHN: Why?

Ms. LEWIS: Because I'm really scared that the levee is going to break.

KAHN: I think your dad said it's going to be OK.

Ms. LEWIS: OK.

KAHN: Don't just take Daniella's dad's word for it. Take Roble Tuberville's word. He is what you call a flood fighter.

Mr. ROBLE TUBERVILLE (Army Corps of Engineers): We patrol the levee.

KAHN: Tuberville works for the Army Corp of Engineers in Greenville. In his pickup, he drives at least 60 miles of the levees every day.

Mr. TUBERVILLE: We ride the levee looking for any seepage or any water that we see that we don't think is supposed to be out there. We will zip off down this levee through this waist-deep grass in our truck, put on our boots, go out there and look at it.

KAHN: So far, despite the record amounts of waters, the levees here in Greenville are holding. There haven't been any significant leaks, any breaches or flooding.

Tuberville hangs a quick right down into the thick green grass on the dry side of the levee. He's checking on a so-called boil: bubbling water he spotted two days ago.

Mr. TUBERVILLE: Well, a sand boil is like water coming back up through your bathtub.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: That's not good.

Mr. TUBERVILLE: Bubbling back up through your bathtub, but it's coming out of the ground.

KAHN: Maintenance workers on the levee dumped gravel all around the boil and contained it with sand bags. It's still bubbling, but Tuberville says no material or dirt is coming out with it.

Mr. TUBERVILLE: It's better to see it coming out clear than it would other stuff from your sewage, say, coming up through your bathtub.

KAHN: That would be really bad.

Mr. TUBERVILLE: We don't want to see anything bad coming up.

KAHN: That would mean that dirt from the levee is being affected, and a breach could occur. Tuberville is part of a long tradition of flood fighters here in Greenville.

Leroy Percy, the son of one of Greenville's most storied families, wrote about them in his 1940 memoir "Lanterns on the Levees." The autobiography is still the bestseller at Hugh McCormick's bookshop on South Main Street. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: "Lanterns on the Levees" was written by William Alexander Percy, Leroy's son.]

McCormick says that according to Percy, the flood fighters always carried three things with them while watching over the levees: first a lantern, second a gun.

Mr. HUGH McCORMICK (Bookshop Owner): To shoot any marauders. And then third was something to keep them warm, which was oftentimes a half-pint or something of that nature.

KAHN: McCormick has one of those lanterns used during the great flood of 1927 in the back of the bookstore. The wall here is filled with pictures of flooded Greenville after the levees broke that year. McCormick says he's taking precautions just in case today's levees give out.

Mr. McCORMICK: Oh, I've moved some things upstairs. I've made an evacuation plan. I don't plan on evacuating, but I'm going to get the women-folks out of here.

KAHN: Back on the levee, modern flood fighter Roble Tuberville doesn't carry a lantern, a flask or a gun. But he's calm and insists there's no reason to worry.

Mr. TUBERVILLE: We've got the strongest flood-control levees in the world, not in Mississippi, in the world.

KAHN: Tuberville says now that the river is cresting, the water level could stay this high for up to 10 more days. With that comes the risk that the levee will saturate and weaken. That means Tuberville will be patrolling this 60-mile section of the levee well into June.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Greenville, Mississippi.

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