SIMMESPORT, La. – A farming community built for evacuees of Hurricane Katrina has become a haven for families driven from their homes by river flooding that has hit states from Arkansas to Louisiana.
Twenty-six families have moved into the enclave informally known as Canadaville because their towns were threatened by flooding from the Mississippi River and smaller rivers that spring from it. The haven created by a Canadian industrialist had a onetime population of around 200 hurricane-displaced residents, but it had dwindled to just a handful by the time people from nearby towns began looking for a place to wait out the flood.
Tonya Nelson, 39, one of the few Katrina evacuees still there, said she recognized the look on their faces.
"I can understand what they're going through because I've been through it myself," she said.
The Mississippi River is swollen by snow melt and heavy spring rains. To take pressure off levees surrounding heavily populated New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the key Morganza Spillway, choosing to flood more rural areas with fewer homes.
Some have flocked to the 900-acre development that was officially named Magnaville when it opened a few months after Katrina because it was created by the head of Canadian auto parts maker Magna International. Hurricane-displaced families could live rent-free if they passed a background check and followed the rules.
Before the flooding, only four of the 49 houses were being used. When Simmesport Mayor Eric Rusk learned the water would rise above flood stage in his town, he asked Magna Industries if evacuees could use some of the vacant houses. The company agreed.
Simmesport is well above the Morganza Spillway. Thirty percent of the Mississippi's water is allowed into the Atchafalaya River, which runs past the town. So with the Mississippi at record levels, the Atchafalaya is high, too. The spillway opening has compounded flooding upriver from the structure, said Joseph Suhayda, a retired LSU engineering professor.
Rusk said flood victims can live there for 60 days rent-free as long as they pay their utilities. Officials think all the vacant houses will be used. Many of the families are from the Simmesport and Spring Bayou communities.
"I think we're going to fill up," said Shane Carmichael, a Magna official who oversees the project.
Carmichael said he wasn't surprised by Rusk's call because the development has housed evacuees from other disasters such as Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
Ashley Michot, 27, said she, her husband, and their three children left the Marksville area Monday, two days after water was released over the weekend at the Morganza spillway near Baton Rouge. They got the evacuation order over the weekend, though water hadn't yet reached their house. Officials say most residents have heeded the call to evacuate.
"It's crazy. My grandpa's home he built 27 years ago is going to get wiped away," she said.
Elsewhere, residents were still packing up. Bernadine Turner, who lives in a mandatory evacuation zone near Krotz Springs, spent a third day Monday moving her things out. Water was not expected to reach the town about 40 miles west of Baton Rouge for several days, but most residents were taking no chances.
"There's no doubt it's going to come up. We don't have flood insurance, and most people here don't. Man, it would be hard to start all over," she said.
And all along the Mississippi River — even in areas clear of the Morganza flooding — a small army of engineers, deputies and even inmates is keeping round-the-clock watch at the many floodwalls and earthen levees holding the water back. They are looking for any droplets that seep through the barriers and any cracks that threaten to turn small leaks into big problems.
The work is hot and sometimes tedious, but without it, the flooding could get much worse.
"I volunteered for this," said jail inmate Wayne McClinton, who was helping with the sandbagging effort in northern Louisiana's Tensas Parish. "It's a chance to get out in the air, to do something different. It's not boring like prison is."
Although the job requires 24-hour vigilance, Reynold Minsky, president of a north Louisiana levee district, said there are some places in his mostly rural district of forest and farmland where he will not ask anyone to go after sundown.
"Unless we've got a serious situation that we know we've found before dark, we don't ask these people to go into these wooded areas because of the snakes and the alligators," Minsky said while taking a break from helicopter tours of the levees. "That's inhumane."
Minsky's 5th Louisiana Levee District is plagued these days by "sand boils," places where river water has found a way through earthen levees and bubbled up on the dry side like an artesian well. He insists they are no reason for alarm. If the water is clear, as it has been so far, that means the levee is not eroding. Stopping the boil involves ringing it with sandbags.
In New Orleans, workers inspect the levees daily when the water is high to look for potential trouble spots. The levees there — which are not among those that failed along canals after Hurricane Katrina — have survived high water before and will survive this latest test, city officials said. The opening of the Morganza has stopped the river's rise at New Orleans, but the relief valve sent water gushing into the mostly rural Atchafalaya River basin.
For those in the path of waters let loose by the Morganza, a tense waiting game has begun. On Monday, 75-year-old Leif Montin watched a truck tow away a storage pod containing most of the furniture he and his wife have in their home in Butte Larose, a community emptied by residents fleeing the rising waters.
"I guess you guys are ready to get out of here," the driver said to Montin.
"Yep. Pretty much," responded Montin.
Water hadn't reached Montin's home, but a canal behind it has been rising by about a foot a day since the Morganza was opened. He's trying to remain optimistic that his house won't take on too much damage.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," he said.
About 60 miles north, 38-year-old Michelle Reech said she and her family decided to evacuate to Magnaville from the community of Big Bend when waters came within 150 yards of her home.
Reech's mother, Patricia Desselle, 64, said their neighborhood in Big Bend hadn't flooded since the last time the Morganza spillway opened in 1973.
"You could pick crawfish off the side of the levees," she recalled. "I'm not lying."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Kevin McGill and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans.; Mary Foster in Tensas Parish, La.; and Holbrook Mohr and Shelia Byrd in Mississippi.