For flood evacuees, it's a waiting game
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VICKSBURG, Miss. -- For thousands of people forced from their homes by the rising Mississippi River, life has become a tedious waiting game: waiting for meals at shelters, waiting for the latest word on their flooded homes, waiting for the river to fall.
The monotony of shelter life has taken a toll on victims who have already been displaced for weeks and may not be able to return for at least a month. The river is expected to crest today in Vicksburg, but high water might not retreat in some areas until late June.
"Lord only knows when it's going to recede. It's so much water," said Steven Cole, who has stayed for nearly two weeks at a church being used as a Red Cross shelter.
Mr. Cole's bottom lip quivered as he described how he ended up in the shelter: He wrecked the truck he uses for carpentry work while helping evacuate several families. Then the house he shared with a friend flooded. Without the shelter in Vicksburg, "I'd be out in the streets," he said.
Nearby, farmers received a bit of good news Wednesday, when officials said they did not expect water to spill over the top of a closely watched levee protecting thousands of acres of crops. And cargo resumed moving slowly along the Mississippi after the Coast Guard reopened a key segment of the river north of New Orleans.
But those developments did nothing to help people whose homes are already underwater. And they have little to fill their days except worry and boredom.
At shelters, evacuees pass the time reading, praying or smoking cigarettes. Vivian Taylor-Wells, a retired nurse and substitute teacher, swaps stories with the other evacuees and thinks a lot about the future. There's not much else to do. "I pray. I read. I meditate," she said. "I just try to sit calm and get my bearings."
Her car broke down while she was evacuating, so she had to leave behind many belongings at her house, which was swamped with several feet of water. "I can't say what the losses are going to be, but it's going to be big," she said.
More than 4,800 people have been displaced by flooding in Mississippi, more than 2,000 of them in Vicksburg and surrounding areas. By the time the flooding ends, more than 6,000 people in Mississippi could be forced to leave their homes, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency estimates.
Accommodations for evacuees range from shelters lined with cots to parking lots where people gathered in campers. People who have been staying in the lot outside the Tunica Arena and Exposition Center have been given until June 10 to find somewhere else to live.
Jimmy Mitchell has been sleeping in a camper at the site since the flood forced residents from Tunica's Cutoff neighborhood in late April. He doesn't know where to go. "We've got to figure it out," he said.
By the time the deadline arrives, federal money could be available to help pay evacuees' expenses, including the cost of hotel rooms, Tunica County Supervisor James Dunn said.
Some of the worst flooding in the state is in the area from Vicksburg northeast to Yazoo City, along the Yazoo River. At the Yazoo Backwater Levee north of Vicksburg, worried officials had been watching water slowly climb up the berm. Early predictions had been that at least a foot of water could pour over the top, flooding tens of thousands of acres of farmland.
But the Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that it did not expect the water to overflow the levee. And even if it does, the amount will be only a trickle.
Forecasters also lowered their expectation for the river's crest at Vicksburg, estimating a height of 57.1 feet today, down a few inches from recent predictions. The crest downstream at Natchez was predicted to happen Saturday. River levels in Baton Rouge and New Orleans were supposed to hold steady near flood stage for the next 2 1/2 weeks.
Among those keeping a close eye on the levee was Ed Jordan, a farmer from Carter, near Yazoo City. About a third of his farm is underwater, and the rest is parched. He's agonizing over whether to water crops that could still get flooded.
Barge traffic on the river resumed after the Coast Guard closed a 15-mile stretch at Natchez for much of Tuesday. Barges were required to pass at the slowest possible speed, out of concern that their wakes could increase the strain on levees holding back the bloated river.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Moland said tests indicated that sandbagging and other protective measures could withstand the wakes if the vessels moved slowly. Boats were allowed through one at a time and had to stay in the center of the channel. Authorities expected the restrictions to remain in effect for about a week, Cmdr. Moland said.
Back at the Red Cross shelter in Vicksburg, Anita Raley stood outside in bare feet and pajamas, smoking a cigarette. She's been at the shelter since her home was flooded almost two weeks ago. "I'm really just kind of numb," she said. "I guess it really hasn't hit me yet."
First Published May 19, 2011 12:00 am