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Waiting For The Flood: More Work, More Worry

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As the Louisiana levee system keeps New Orleans and Baton Rouge dry, some cities are preparing to get wet. Water spilling out of the Mississippi River and into the Atchafalaya Basin is starting to rise in more populated areas to the south. With a high-water mark not coming until next week, residents have had plenty of time to prepare. Almost too much time. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Residents of south Louisiana have had weeks to prepare for flooding from the Mississippi River. Water released by the Corps of Engineers through the Morganza Spillway is now beginning to roll into larger communities.

As Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports, waiting on the water has meant more work and more worry.

BLAKE FARMER: Even prison inmates can't fill sandbags on an empty stomach, at least not in Louisiana.

Ms. HOPE LAGER: Seafood gumbo, homemade bread, potato salad and shrimp spaghetti.

FARMER: Having fortified her home in Terrebonne Parish with 2,800 sandbags, Hope Lager brought this spread to thank the trustees, as they're called around here.

Ms. LAGER: They eating sandwiches every day and I know they would like a, you know, a home cooked meal - good home cooked meal, a Cajun meal.

FARMER: Those prisoners some dressed in actual striped jumpsuits have helped fill more than a million sandbags.

There's been plenty of time to prepare for the floodwaters, almost too much, says Johnny Bush. He's the fire chief in Gibson, Louisiana.

Chief JOHNNY BUSH (Gibson Volunteer Fire Department): We've never had an issue to where we've had this much time.

FARMER: Notice before a hurricane, he says, is usually just a few days. Bush's team is fighting this water with water. They're called Tiger Dams, basically 50-foot tubes full of water, laid end to end.

Chief BUSH: The schools in the area, we put around, to make sure we protect those. We're basically putting these around the residential areas, anywhere that's not protected by a levee or a levee that we can't build fast enough.

FARMER: Yes, there's even been time to build earthen levees from scratch.

(Soundbite of machinery)

FARMER: The yellow excavator tamps down a two-and-a-half foot mound that stretches into a cypress forest. Parishes have built miles of new earthworks. There's also a makeshift dam made out of an old barge to divert water from the bayous to the sea.

Mr. HOWARD VERRETT: I just want to be ready.

FARMER: Sixty-two-year-old Howard Verrett shovels sand into Army green bags, and agrees to talk only if he can keep working. Verrett lives near the Atchafalaya River, the one that's getting all the water from the Morganza Spillway.

Mr. VERRETT: In '73, all of this was flooded.

(Soundbite of shoveling)

FARMER: But Verrett didn't leave when the spillway opened in '73 and says he won't leave this time, which is why he's working so hard to keep his house dry.

Bridget Skinner of Morgan City says she's ready to leave. She just doesn't know when to go. And she says the flood prep is getting expensive.

Ms. BRIDGET SKINNER: The sandbags, the storage fees, the moving and trying to get the furniture to one place, like an area that's not going to flood. And then coming back and trying to secure the home of the stuff that you couldn't move. It's just been a lot of chaos.

Mr. MICHEL CLAUDET (President, Terrebonne Parish): We were notified two weeks ago. There was a panic at that time.

FARMER: Michel Claudet is president of Terrebonne Parish. With a crest still days away, he says some residents think the water might never come. Claudet says it's on its way, though behind schedule. And if the crest doesn't get as high as expected, Claudet says it would be a blessing to many without flood insurance. This parish isn't directly in the Atchafalaya Basin. And Claudet says residents here didn't buy their houses knowing they could one day be inundated by water diverted from the Mississippi.

Mr. CLAUDET: My people didn't receive money for flow easements or spillways easements. My people are kind of like walking down the street and somebody takes a hit and knocks them in the nose. That's kind of what it's like.

FARMER: Claudet says if the Corps of Engineers is going to knowingly send water his way, the federal government should pick up the tab for all the sandbags and levee building, no matter how much damage is done.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in New Orleans.

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