Friday, May 13, 2011

Jindal: Decision on opening spillway could come Saturday

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CNN) -- It is "extremely likely" that the Morganza Spillway will be opened by Saturday night or Sunday morning at the latest as officials try to ease flooding at New Orleans, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Friday.

Opening the spillway could lower anticipated cresting levels along the lower Mississippi River and divert water away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but would flood much of low-lying south-central Louisiana.

Though the governor said a decision has not been made, he said residents in the areas around the spillway should expect flooding and plan accordingly.

Louisiana state and local officials braced for the possibility of major flooding in the Atchafalaya River Basin if federal authorities go ahead and open the Morganza Spillway, which is north of Baton Rouge.

The National Guard worked around the clock to construct a flood barrier in Morgan City, Louisiana, where the Atchafalaya River was already 3.15 feet above flood stage, according to the National Weather Service.

The strategy in Morgan City, officials say, is to reinforce the levees around the city. That's where efforts were being focused on Friday, rather than on handing out sandbags to individual residents.

"Really, we're just waiting," said Evie Bertaut, who has lived in Morgan City for 50 years.

Officials believe that the levees will protect the city from flooding, but some are taking preliminary precautions, she said. At Sacred Heart Church, where Bertaut works, people spent the day moving important documents such a baptismal, marriage and financial records to the second floor.

"Most people are getting their photographs together, things that you can't replace in case you have to go," she said.

Meanwhile, in the Arkansas town of Helena, the river crested at 56.4 feet, according to the National Weather Service. That's 12.4 feet above the flood stage there.

The river's slow pace has given emergency responders more time to prepare, forecasters said. But while the slow-moving water gives residents extra time to get ready, it also means that land could remain under water for some time.

Jindal urged southeastern Louisiana residents to evacuate.

"Now is the time to take action," he said.

The Corps is measuring the current flow at a river landing, and once it reaches a specified volume and velocity, the Mississippi River Commission will make a decision on the Morganza Spillway.

Jindal said projections indicated the tipping point could be reached as early as Saturday evening.

The U.S. Coast Guard said floodwaters could close the Mississippi River to ships at the New Orleans port as early as Monday morning.

To help New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday opened more bays at the Bonnet Carre spillway just north of the city, diverting water into Lake Pontchartrain. A total of 223 bays are now open in the 350-bay spillway.

The National Weather Service said that as of Friday morning, the river was at 16.8 feet in New Orleans, just a fraction below flood stage. It is expected to crest on May 23 at more than 19 feet. The New Orleans levees are built to withstand 20 feet, according to the weather service.

Efforts to spread awareness of the dangers and damages that the flooding can cause got a boost Thursday night from some of country music's biggest stars at a televised benefit.

The goal of "Music Builds: The CMT Disaster Relief Concert" was to raise money not only for victims of the flooding, but also for those in the South affected by deadly tornadoes.

"There is nothing more beautiful than seeing people rally together and support and help each other, and I truly think that something positive comes from all of this, and that's a unified community, a unified country," said Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellem.

Country star Tim McGraw urged those in flood areas to "not be a hero" and evacuate if so ordered by authorities.

Upriver in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Police Chief Walter Armstrong said 600 residents had been evacuated as of Thursday night. The river is expected to crest next Thursday at 57.5 feet. Flood stage at Vicksburg, the level at which the river may begin flowing over its banks, is 43 feet.

Armstrong said he expected higher water Friday, with more homes affected. More than two dozen roads were closed and about 45 businesses will be closed by Friday.

Homes that were built between the levee and the Mississippi River were the first affected.

"We estimate that every home built on the river side of the levee from Memphis all the way to the Louisiana line is flooded," said Mike Womack, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Across the South and lower Midwest, floodwaters have covered about 3 million acres of farmland, eroding for many farmers what could have been a profitable year for corn, wheat, rice and cotton, officials said.

In Arkansas, the Farm Bureau estimated that damage to the state's agriculture could top more than $500 million as more than 1 million acres of cropland are under water.

"It's in about 10 feet of water," Dyersburg, Tennessee, farmer Jimmy Moody said of his 440 acres of winter wheat, which was to be harvested in the coming month.

Other farmers in Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas rushed to salvage what wheat they could ahead of the rising water. As for corn, farmers who were able to get into the fields during a soggy planting season in late March and April are seeing their crops in some cases under several feet of water.

Some officials said Thursday that spillover effects resulting from the flood could threaten other industries. That includes the possibility that the Waterford 3 nuclear power plant in Taft, Louisiana, could be closed, according to CNN affiliate WGNO.

The Mississippi River is expected to crest at 26.6 feet in Taft on May 23. If it reaches 27 feet, officials told WGNO, the plant's water intake system could shut down.

Carl Rhode of Entergy, the plant's operator, told WGNO that the threat to the intake system is not a matter of nuclear safety.

However, Scott Welchel, a St. Charles Parish Emergency Operations Center official, said shutting down the plant would have a "domino effect" on local industries.

"It would impact every industry along the river," Welchel said. "That's just something that isn't easy for people to deal with, especially on a moment's notice."

For residents in communities along the river, the damage has been far more devastating than can be measured in dollars and cents.

Danny Moore, of Millington, Tennessee, told CNN affiliate WPTY that the recent disaster marked the second time in one year that flooding took away nearly everything he had.

Moore said that after a flood destroyed all of his furniture last year, he decided to move everything he owned into rented storage space. However, those belongings were destroyed when his storage unit was flooded several days ago.

"They say bad luck comes in threes. I hope this is the end of it," Moore told WPTY.

The Millington resident said he lost a house to a fire in 2009. Moore said he is too preoccupied with taking care of his girlfriend, who is suffering from an infection that is damaging her liver, to look for new furniture.

"We'll do what we've got to do and keep praying," Moore said, holding back tears.

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