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BUTTE LAROSE, La. – Louisiana residents in the path of diverted floodwaters from the bloated Mississippi River kept up an agonizing vigil as hundreds of homes outside levees are threatened by the slow-moving surge that has swamped houses as high as the rooftops in Mississippi.
Floodwaters intentionally redirected by the Army Corps of Engineers into Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin still haven't reached a number of small towns along that route. Meanwhile, Vicksburg and other cities upriver in Mississippi reported early signs that water levels were just beginning to slowly ebb as the floodwater bulge heads south to the Gulf of Mexico.
The corps partially opened the Mississippi River's Morganza floodway on May 14 to spare densely populated Baton Rouge and New Orleans from catastrophic flooding, but the water it was diverting from the river into the Atchafalaya Basin still hasn't crested in Butte LaRose and other small communities in south Louisiana.
In St. Martin's Parish, La., a mandatory evacuation initially set for Saturday has been pushed back at least two days after officials said the river would crest there May 27 at a lower level than previously thought.
The delayed evacuation in the parish is both a source of optimism and frustration for residents who have heard the same grim forecast for days on end. Once the surge of water comes, residents may not be able to return for weeks. They'll have to wait until Monday while officials decide whether to reinstate the evacuation order.
"It's probably a blessing for some because maybe some people who didn't have time to do additional sandbagging will now have more time," said Maj. Ginny Higgins, a spokeswoman for the St. Martin's Parish sheriff's office.
Kip and Gwen Bacquet trundled their furniture and other belongings to the second floor of their home, 9 feet off the ground. They are bracing for up to 5 feet of water in their neighborhood. Gwen Bacquet, 54, said the canal in their backyard has been rising about 4 inches per day. Their pier already was underwater.
The couple moved here last summer for a change of pace from their native Lafayette, a city of about 120,000 some 60 miles west of Baton Rouge.
Before leaving town, they planned for their last act: shutting off the electricity.
"Would the last people to leave Butte LaRose please turn out the lights?" Kip Bacquet quipped.
Farther up the Atchafalaya River, St. Landry Parish imposed a mandatory evacuation several days ago for numerous areas outside the ring levees protecting Krotz Springs and Melville. Hundreds of homes in all the evacuated areas are believed to be at risk of flooding.
The wait has been difficult for Michelle McInnis, 37, who spent days packing up to leave with her boyfriend, Todd Broussard. She called the National Weather Service every morning and used its measurements to chart the slowly rising water's progress on a calendar.
"This right now is mentally tormenting, this slow rising," she said.
It was a different story in Vicksburg as Mississippi residents wanted to know Saturday when the water there would finally recede.
Chris Lynn fired up his small aluminum boat and traveled about a mile to check out his father's house. The home sits atop a 15-foot dirt mound on the Mississippi River's banks, much like an island in the murky water.
"It looks like the water has come down about 2 inches," Lynn said, grabbing his cell phone to call his 73-year-old father with the news. "That's good. The floor is starting to dry out."
Sections of Vicksburg that have been flooded for weeks remained swamped Saturday, with water up to the rooftops on some homes.
Yet even though the Mississippi River was slowly falling, it is still so high that water is backing up into its tributaries, especially the Yazoo River.
Marty Pope, a senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson, said Saturday that the Yazoo River is not expected to crest until Monday at Yazoo City and two days later at Belzoni.
Pope said that means floodwaters will recede in some areas but continue to rise in others.
"I'll be glad to see that water start surging the other way," Pope said.
Meanwhile, Mississippi Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker applauded the corps on Saturday after a flying tour of flooded areas along the Mississippi River. The two Republicans spoke with reporters on a Vicksburg bluff overlooking the swollen river and said the most important thing was that the levees and the entire flood control system had worked as designed — despite some lesser problems.
Wicker said the flooding has dumped sediment that will have to be dredged from ports and harbors along the river. He said there may be a need to seek a federal budget supplement from Congress to fund those projects. Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, also said the flooding is one of the biggest disasters in recent memory — stretching in some areas as far as he could see.
"It's going to a long time before we fully recover," Cochran said, noting it could take weeks for some areas to dry out once the water recedes. But he promised, "We can overcome this disaster."
The river was at 56.7 feet at Vicksburg on Saturday, down from the crest of 57.1 feet. It's still above the 1927 record of 56.2 feet.
The surging water has wiped out crops and damaged low-lying farmland along both banks of the Mississippi and its tributaries.
In Louisiana, Marty Frey harvested 600 acres of wheat from the Morganza Spillway before the massive gates were opened to divert water. But his rice had just been planted and now those fields are deep under water as thousands of acres of fields were swamped.
Back in Butte LaRose, Tommy Girouard, 57, and his brother, Keith, 53, were hunkering down to ride out the flood on Tommy's 60-foot house boat. Girouard said he is staying to protect his $150,000 investment. They stock up on 400 gallons of gas and food to last two months.
"It's safe on here," he said. "It shouldn't be a problem. Just tightening and loosening ropes, we should be fine."
Sheriff's deputies and National Guard troops knocked on his door Thursday, warning him about the evacuation that has since been temporarily lifted and telling him to sign a form that says he understands the risks of staying.
"Didn't read it. Wasn't interested," Girouard said. "I can't just walk away from this."