For Bayou Residents, Floods Are A Fact Of Life

By opening the Morganza Spillway, the Army Corps of Engineers is sending Mississippi River water through communities that thousands call home. But even as they're forced to evacuate, few are blaming the Corps. Those who live along Louisiana's bayous aren't happy about having to fight the river, but say it's something they've grown up.

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We go next to Louisiana, where Governor Bobby Jindal has a bit of good news for people facing the rising waters being released from the swollen Mississippi River. The governor says the flooding that will come from opening spillways along the river will be less than expected. Flood level projections were lowered because tributaries are pouring less water into the Mississippi River than anticipated. Even so, thousands of people in Louisiana's bayou communities are preparing for the approaching waters.

From Baton Rouge, NPR's Greg Allen has this story.

GREG ALLEN: When it begins flooding in St. Landry Parish, Darrell Neely will be one of the first to know. He's been working with his father, Lloyd Neely, on property they own on the west bank of the Atchafalaya River. He takes me out to the backyard, which has turned into a swamp.

Mr. DARRELL NEELY: It came up overnight right here. Yeah, it's already - it's wet. You're in the middle of it there. Yeah, you can see it's starting to seep up in here now.

ALLEN: Yeah.

Mr. NEELY: See, you can see how swift it is.

ALLEN: He's talking about the river. It's risen several feet since Saturday, when the Morganza spillway was open, diverting water from the Mississippi and reducing pressure on levees protecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Darrell's father, Lloyd Neely, doesn't live here, but uses the seven acres for storage, camping, and just enjoying the Atchafalaya.

Mr. NEELY: We've been out here all our life. You know, I know everything there is to know about this river - when the fish is biting, when it's not biting, when to fish and when not to fish.

ALLEN: Neely says this time next week, he expects his property will be under water. When it recedes, it will be covered in mud and his trailers will likely be ruined. At age 65 and recovering from cancer, Neely says he's not sure whether he has what it takes to clean up the mess. But he says he doesn't resent the Army Corps of Engineers for opening the floodway.

Mr. NEELY: I'm looking to be fair with everybody. If I have to give up something, I'll just have to give it up.

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

ALLEN: Wendy Moreau has already moved out of her home on the Atchafalaya. She's back to pick up her dogs. She's lived here for 50 years and says she's not making the same mistake she made in 1973, the last time the Morganza floodway was opened.

Ms. WENDY MOREAU: Well, first you could walk. And then you had to use a boat. Then it got where it was real bad. And it came up to the, right to the edge of this yard over there. And we had to haul our furniture out by boat.

ALLEN: In '73, she says, houses came floating down the river. This time she'll be staying in Melville, which is ringed by levees and should be safe from flooding. Still, she says, the Atchafalaya is a beautiful river.

Ms. MOREAU: But it can get angry and it's angry right now. When you live in the flood, you're always, you know, going to expect it.

ALLEN: Just down the road, I found Alec Dugas, who was also working to get his things out of harm's way. He's got a big job. He owns a fencing company and is working to move several hundred galvanized metal fence posts.

Mr. ALEC DUGAS: I'm trying to get it up above what the water level is going to be. I'm building them right over there to pick it up.

ALLEN: Dugas figures he has five days before the water covers this area. And like nearly everyone I spoke with, he has nothing but compliments for the Corps.

Mr. DUGAS: They're doing it right. They're doing it a little at a time to give animals a chance to get out. So that is great. 'Cause I was wondering what would happen to all the wildlife and stuff. There's an abundance of wildlife in that basin. But you're going to see them all be coming across here and everywhere else, bears and everything else.

ALLEN: Dugas says many people like him view flooding as a fact of life, part of what makes the Atchafalaya Basin special. And in recent years, he says, the quality of fishing has declined as parts of the river have silted up.

Mr. DUGAS: All this fresh water, it will bring in crawfish, it will bring in some fresh fish and it'll take all this silt out of this river to where it flows. A lot of benefit. Those benefits will be there for 30 years.

ALLEN: New projections by the Army Corps of Engineers suggest fewer people will be flooded out when the Mississippi River crests here late this week. But that doesn't change the picture for people in this area.

Wendy Moreau says the river is still going to flood, and if this flood is anything like the one in 1973, she won't expect to get back into her home until the end of the summer.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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