By Karen L. Willoughby, Managing Editor
MISSISSIPPI DELTA – Crews of able-bodied Southern Baptist volunteers at the request of First Baptist Vidalia the first two weeks of May are taking the prized possessions of the elderly and infirm among Vidalia residents across the Mississippi River to storage in Natchez, Miss.
Just in case.
“I see no problems with our levee system functioning as it’s supposed to,” said Reynold Minsky, president of the Fifth District Levee Board and a deacon at First Baptist Church of Lake Providence. “We’re going to have a three-foot clearance” between floodwater levels that haven’t been seen since the 1930s – or maybe ever – and the top of the levees.
[img_assist|nid=7309|title=Rising Mississippi|desc=The Mississippi River is edging ever closer to Vidalia’s Riverfront Center, which is between the river and the levee that rises in the lower right of this photo. The Riverfront Center will be flooded, city officials agree. Work continues on protecting each building as an island.|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=67]Rumors of impending devastation were flowing faster the first week of May than were the river waters coursing down from where the Ohio River pours into the “Mighty Mississipp.” Minsky, Corps of Engineer officials and city/state leaders on May 4 said the dangers of rumors that fuel panic were worse than the flooding that could come when northern waters reach Lake Providence May 20, which is nearly within spitting distance of both Arkansas and Mississippi, in far northeast Louisiana, said First Lake Providence Pastor Mitch Minson.
“We’re stressing to our people not to panic, but just to be prepared,” said Bill McCullin, pastor of First Baptist Church of Vidalia. “Yes this is a serious situation but leaders are doing everything they can do.
“This [possibility of flooding] has unified a community that needed to be unified,” McCullin continued. “People are thinking about each other. Even though we’re at the early stages of this we can still see God at work.”
The Mississippi River levee system is strong; there has never been an unintentional break in it, McCullin said. Minsky oversees 257 miles of it, which is more than twice the driving distance between Lake Providence and Vidalia, but the twists and turns of the river add to the length.
A Google map search for “Cairo, Ill.,” which then follows the course of the Mississippi shows how much land is flood prone, and how the river has changed in its course over the years. Levees trail down the length of the current river bed, all of which were built higher than the expected flood stage in any given area.
“River levels at all points along northern Louisiana are forecast to crest at record or near-record highs,” according to a May 5 article written by Greg Hilburn for The News Star in Monroe, which followed a May 4 visit to the area by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
“We know we’re facing historic levels of water coming through Louisiana, but we’re determined to do everything we can to protect people’s lives, property and livelihoods,” Jindal said, according to the article.
Flood stage at Vicksburg, Miss., on Interstate 20 and across the Mississippi River from Louisiana, is 43 feet. The river is expected to crest at 57.5 feet on May 20. Flood stage at Vidalia, La., and Natchez, Miss., is 48 feet. The river is expected to crest at 64 feet – down one foot from earlier predictions.
“[The levee] has never been tested beyond 58 feet,” said McCullin of First Vidalia. “Beyond 60 feet they really do not know. [The Army Corps of Engineers’] has confidence is in its ability to hold what’s coming, but their uncertainty is that they don’t know for sure.”
City leaders encouraged Vidalia residents to move treasured possessions to Natchez, which sets on a high bluff, the pastor said. “They’re not predicting they are going to have a problem,” McCullin added. “I’m trusting in what the Corps of Engineers reported.”
A town meeting took place Wednesday evening to quell rumors and give solid information, but the room could only hold 50 people, so McCullin invited the mayor to First Vidalia Thursday evening, May 5, for a repeat conference. About 300 people participated in the second gathering.
Especially worrisome for Vidalia is its $75 million Riverfront Center, which lies between the river and the levee. The Riverfront Center includes a medical center with state-of-the-art equipment, a hotel, convention center and welcome center, plus two water wells and more than 300 badly-needed jobs. Everyone agrees the riverfront area will flood. The Corps of Engineers, National Guardsmen, city workers and volunteers are surrounding each of the four buildings with “Hesco baskets” – 4×8 foot canvas containers filled with sand.
“Each building and water well will be like an island,” said Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland, according to Hilburn’s News-Star article. Pumps would be placed inside the Hesco walls to remove any seepage.
The flooding won’t stop at Vidalia. The Mississippi River doesn’t stop until it gets to the Gulf of Mexico. Army Corps of Engineers officials said Friday, May 6, that they planned on Monday, May 9, to open the Bonnet Carre spillway, which is about 28 miles north of New Orleans. It channels water for about six miles to Lake Pontchartrain.
“There’s nothing in the Bonnet Carre spillway except recreational uses and some borrow pits” being dug for construction projects, said Ken Holder, a public information officer for the Corps. The spillway was last opened in 2008. It will drain water from the Mississippi, and thus lower the level of the river.
One more option is to open the Morganza Spillway in Pointe Coupee Parish near the Baton Rouge area, which would affect people. No decision has been made on this yet.
At this point, prayer is what’s needed most of all, McCullin said – prayer that God would calm the hearts of Christians, and that they would use the opportunity to bring others to faith and trust in Jesus.
“We are preparing for the worst,” McCullin said. “There could be seepage, sand boils. As the mayor has made clear, we’re in uncharted territory.” In a worst-case scenario, First Vidalia’s offices would move to First Natchez.
“Once it hits the crest, it will take about a month to six weeks for [floodwaters] to get down to the 48-foot flood stage. Will the levee system hold that much water for that much time? … I would rather prepare for the worst and get the best,” McCullin said. “We’re stressing to our people not to panic, but just to be prepared. It’s just better to be safe.”