Louisiana deputies were warning residents Monday to head for higher ground to avoid water gushing from the Mississippi River after a floodgate was opened this weekend for the first time in nearly four decades.
The massive Morganza Spillway is reducing stress on levees protecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but it is diverting the water to other rivers, bayous and wetlands.
Most residents heeded the warnings to get out, even in places where there hadn't been so much as a trickle, hopeful that the flooding engineered to protect heavily populated cities would be merciful to their way of life.
The floodwaters could reach depths of 20 feet in the coming weeks, though levels were nowhere close to that yet in the towns about 50 miles west of Baton Rouge.
Meanwhile, President Obama met Monday with Memphis, Tenn.-area families affected when the river flooded there, as well as with local officials, first responders and volunteers.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama met with the groups for about 35 minutes. Nanny Williams, an unemployed mother living with her daughter and granddaughter, described being flooded out of her house, forcing her family into a community shelter, Carney said. Another woman, Rose Hunt, told the president that prayer spared her house — which became a refuge for her son, who had to abandon his home.
It will be at least a week before the Mississippi — which has broken river-level records that had held since the 1920s in some places — crests at the Morganza Spillway. Officials opened two of its 125 massive gates on Saturday and another two Sunday.
Louisiana Town To Be Among The First Hit
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maps indicated that the area around Krotz Springs, La., would be among the first to see rising water levels from the Morganza, according to Lisa Vidrine, director of St. Landry Parish's Department of Emergency Preparedness.
"The water we are expecting to see is backwater — water that's from the basin area and that's going to come around the levee system that stops south of St. Landry Parish," Vidrine said. "And that's going to spread out through the basin and start backing up to St. Landry."
To help prevent backflooding in Krotz Springs, the National Guard is working with parish and state officials to build an emergency levee. Backloaders are filling wire HESCO baskets with soil and recycled asphalt to hold back the water.
"We're probably, if I had to guess, 60 percent completed on our section," said Sgt. Lloyd Martin of the Louisiana National Guard. "The top grade on the entire project will be at a level of 28 feet, 6 inches."
That's the height above sea level, tall enough to protect nearly 250 homes and a nearby refinery. It's all part of the massive flood control fight involving thousands of federal, state and parish officials in Louisiana.
Spillway May Stay Open For Weeks
Those who live in the Atchafalaya Basin and have to evacuate their homes may be away for some time. Corps officials have said the Morganza floodway is likely to remain open for at least three weeks.
Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said this weekend that the battle in Louisiana is just getting started. The river there is still rising and isn't expected to crest until later in the week.
In Mississippi, the corps said the Mississippi River is expected to crest in the city of Greenville late Monday or Tuesday at 64.5 feet, a half-foot lower and a day later than originally expected.
"I've lived here for 34 years and I've never seen it so high, never, ever," said Jennifer Bledsoe, who climbed a grass-covered hill to snap a picture of the levee right off Main Street.
The riverfront casinos are flooded, as is the yacht club. Only the top of the gazebo of what was a children's park was visible.
Despite the record amounts of water, the levees are holding.
Flood-fighter Roble Tuberville, who is with the Army Corps of Engineers, says there's no reason to worry.
"We've got the strongest flood control levees in the world, not just in Mississippi but in the world," he said.
Still, Hugh McCormick, who owns a bookshop on South Main Street, says he's taking precautions just in case the levees give out.
"I've moved some things upstairs. I've made an evacuation plan," he said. "I don't plan on evacuating, but I'm going to get the [women] out of here."
Downriver, the projected crest remained at 57.5 feet in Vicksburg on Thursday. In Natchez, the corps says the crest is now projected at 63 feet on Saturday, also down a half-foot.
Emergency officials said the river is slowly falling at Helena, Ark., and Tunica, Miss., and mainline levees are holding.
NPR's Greg Allen reported from Baton Rouge, La., and NPR's Carrie Kahn reported from Greenville, Miss., for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press