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Story Archives: Officials says levees will hold; attempt to calm residents
|Officials says levees will hold; attempt to calm residents|
Local officials took time Tuesday to calm shattered nerves and contend with wild rumors concerning the rising Mississippi River, which is expected to crest at a record high at Vidalia of 65 feet on May 22, according to the National Weather Service.
Officials have fielded a steady stream of phone calls from residents -- most frazzled and frantic -- who feared the worst and also expressed those fears by phone, Internet, Facebook and text messages.
"People are worried, naturally, but we think everything will be okay," said Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland, echoing the sentiments of public officials throughout the area.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has expressed confidence that levees can withstand the rising river levels, as has the Fifth District Levee Board.
At the same time, officials urged residents to take precautions and make preparations just in case an evacuation is ordered.
"I think the levees will be able to handle it -- it's just going to be a hard fight on these sand boils," said Fifth District Levee Board President Reynold Minsky. "That's going to be our hardest fight.
"I don't see the levee overtopping. The Corps hasn't given me any indication that we've got any levees that are so low that they're going go overtop."
Minsky said work is underway to shore up three locations along the river in East Carroll, Madison and Concordia parishes.
At river mile 357 south of Vidalia, preliminary work will begin soon to raise and reinforce a 900-ft. stretch of levee. Corps Public Information Officer Kavanaugh Breazeale said contractors will use Hesco baskets filled with sand to provide extra reinforcement. He said that section of the levee "has settled over the years. It's a little lower than the other parts of the levee."
He said this type of precautionary work will be done at locations where and when needed.
"I don't think the levees are what we have to worry about," he said. "I think backwater may be more of an issue."
Work is also underway on the Vidalia Riverfront, according to the Copeland.
"We are at work this morning putting up those sand apparatus to protect the buildings on the riverfront to a level of 67 feet" said Copeland. "Each building will be like an island. Those buildings will be closed."
Meanwhile, Copeland said he is "very confident that the levees are in good condition. We're grateful to everyone that has been working on these issues, including the sheriff's office, the Corps, city workers, volunteers."
Police Jury President Melvin Ferrington said the parish is working closely with the Corps and Concordia Homeland Security Director Morris White.
"We ask people to take normal precaution but we believe that the levees will be alright," said Ferrington.
He said the Adams County Board of Supervisors is providing storage space for some of the jury's equipment that isn't covered by flood insurance.
"We have millions of dollars of equipment that's not covered so as a precaution we will start moving some equipment next week," said Ferrington.
Jason Trichell with the Fifth District Levee Board said Corps officials indicated Tuesday that there are always dangers when the river reaches historic levels but is confident that the levees will maintain the water.
If that were to change, the Corps will notify the public, said Trichell.
The levee board was advised by Corps that as of May 1 all cattle and all river-side fences were to be removed from the levee. Additionally, no traffic will be allowed on the levee. Tickets will be given for any unauthorized travel.
Minsky said levees "are in so much better shape than they were in 1973," but he said improvement is needed.
"The state's providing the money for the rights of way, it's the Congress that's not providing the money for the Corps to hire the contractors to raise the levee," said Minsky.
Additionally, Minsky said the "people in Washington just don't understand that the economy of the United States of America depends on the Mississippi River. More commerce is on that river than any other place in this country."
Tensas Basin Levee District Executive Director John Stringer said that if the mainline Mississippi River Levee "performs as constructed we should be in good shape. Sand boils and seepage, which are always a problem, will probably be worse with this additional water. If the engineers have done their job, and I feel like they have, then it should pass and we'll be okay."
He cautioned, however, that continued rainfall could result in higher crest predictions.
Meanwhile, rumors are a problem throughout northeastern Louisiana.
"I just tell people if you hear something call the proper authorities," he said.
Stringer said the Black River at the Jonesville Lock & Dam is expected to crest at 52.5 feet on May 19. Flood stage is 50 feet.
"That's just above flood stage and that shouldn't create any problems," he said. Corps officials expressed no concerns involving interior levees and backwater during a meeting in Vicksburg Tuesday morning, said Stringer.
"The Ouachita River at Monroe is still low and is expected to crest around mid-May at 39 feet at Monroe," a foot below flood stage, he said.
The Corps, state officials, levee boards and local officials have begun preparations for Phase II flood fighting efforts, according to the Corps. Those efforts include assigning more resources to monitoring the flood, such as looking for sand boils, levee seepage, and slides, more frequent levee patrols with more people looking at smaller areas, and working closely with the levee boards to share information on the current status of levees, providing technical assistance on how best to fight the flood.
The Vicksburg District's Emergency Operations Center will coordinate with the state emergency management agencies in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi concerning any necessary activities.
The lands that will be affected by the high water are located along the Mississippi River with the main areas of impact expected to be between the levees, according to the Corps.
The highest crest on record at Vidalia was 58.04 feet in February of 1937.
During the Great Flood of 1927, the river crested at 56.60 feet.
Floods have long been a part of life in the Mississippi River Valley.
Nineteenth Century historian Benjamin L.C. Wailes of Natchez wrote that the 1828 flood "was probably the greatest flood, and the highest water" since the flood of 1782. The 1782 flood was "the most extensive flood ever known within the limits of the present State of Louisiana, by any living witnesses, at the cession of Louisiana to the United States."
A retired judge who survived this flood, which occurred long before there was a levee system in place, told Wailes that "the waters extended over all the regions lying south of Red River, through swamps and prairies to within one mile of Oppelousas village, which is in an elevated or rolling prairie." The judge said "the few spots which the water did not reach were covered with deer."
Dr. Andrew Robert Kilpatrick, a Black River planter and writer who lived in Concordia Parish from the late 1840s to the early 1860s, said that many "raftsmen and wood-choppers" had cut "thousands of trees out of the numerous bayous, lakes and sloughs, which were floated to New Orleans or other points." Before the water began to rise in 1828, these men cut hundreds of trees in the cypress swamps two to three miles from Black River.
In Catahoula Parish, Kilpatrick said the "high water mark of 1828 was about four feet above the highest swamp lands of the parish, and about three feet over the lands of Catahoula prairie." Judge James Gowan Taliaferro told Kilpatrick that a flood in 1779 was the highest water he'd every heard of and "was about four feet higher than 1828."
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