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Barge Traffic Resumes Around Vidalia, La.

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Barge Traffic Resumes Around Vidalia, La.

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Barge Traffic Resumes Around Vidalia, La.

Barge Traffic Resumes Around Vidalia, La.

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The small town of Vidalia, La., is putting up a big fight against the Mississippi River. Barge traffic along a 15-mile section of the river was brought to a standstill one day this week. There was fear that wake from vessels was putting pressure on the town's levees. Traffic is moving again but only one barge at a time may go though.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The small town of Vidalia, Louisiana is putting up a big fight against the Mississippi River. For a full day this week, barge traffic along a 15-mile section of the river was brought to a standstill. That was because of fear that wake from vessels was putting pressure on the town's levees. Stopping the barge traffic means losses because it counts for millions and millions of dollars every day. But with the swollen river at an all-time high, residents in the town welcomed the move. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: Vidalia's town motto is it's the city on the move. That certainly describes Mayor Hyram Copeland. Since the water rose to historic levels last week he hasn't slowed down or slept much.

Mayor HYRAM COPELAND (Vidalia, Louisiana): Five hours sleep in the last five days.

KAHN: Sunday night was a nail biter. Water was leaking under the 20 foot tall wall of sand filled HESCO baskets the city had erected around the town's convention center, hotels, and hospital. All those building sit right at the foot of the river. There was a good chance the sand wall would give.

Copeland got on the phone with the Army Corp of Engineers and the Coast Guard. The decision was made to stop barge traffic along the river.

Mayor COPELAND: They did sit down with us. They did understand our problem. They're to be commended. The last thing we wanted to do is create any major problems for anyone else.

KAHN: Copeland isn't a shy man, especially when he's boasting about his relatives.

Mayor COPELAND: Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart are my first cousins. They can sing and I can't.

KAHN: But he's very modest when asked about what it took to stand his ground against big businesses that would lose hundreds of millions of dollars a day once the river traffic was shutdown.

You didn't feel a little bit like David in front of Goliath there?

Mayor COPELAND: A little bit.

KAHN: Traffic is moving again along the river here, just one barge at a time though. And they have to go very slow. Lisa Coghlan, with the Army Corp of Engineers, says every precaution is being taken to make sure the levees hold.

Ms. LISA COGHLAN (Army Corp of Engineers): Well, the levees are safe. They're sound. They're functioning as they should.

KAHN: Not only is there a lot of water running past town, there's a lot under it, too. The water table is so full it can't hold anymore. Water seeps up through the ground. Lawns and driveways nearest the river are soaked.

Edward Curtis isn't concerned about the soggy ground or the integrity of the levee. He and his daughter and nephew sit on plastic lawn chairs in the driveway of his home, right below the earthen wall. Curtis is 91. He was seven years old during the great flood of 1927.

Mr. EDWARD CURTIS: All this was underwater, all this. My momma used to fish off the porch.

KAHN: He says everything was under water. He can remember his momma fishing off the porch. Curtis spent his early years sharecropping, then as a truck driver for the oil companies. He's always lived along the river.

When the town flooded again in 1937, he says everyone decided enough was enough and they moved Vidalia to higher ground. Curtis says he helped move the houses.

Mr. CURTIS: We moved the houses. We moved them. We put them on rollers.

KAHN: You put the houses on rollers and moved them?

Mr. CURTIS: Yeah, and pulled them.

KAHN: And pulled them?

Curtis's daughter says she's got their bags packed and in the trunk of the car just in case.

Back on the levee with Mayor Hyram Copeland, he says he's confident no one will have to leave. But he says the Mighty Mississippi is sending everyone a message they better listen to.

Mayor COPELAND: You think you can control me, you think you can tell me what to do, and every now and then it's going to raise up and say, hey, that's not the case.

KAHN: The river is set to crest here Saturday at 62 and a half feet, more than four feet higher than the floods of 1927 and '37.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Vidalia,´┐ŻLouisiana.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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