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Mississippi River flooding: Army engineers open Morganza Spillway, severe flooding threatens

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The corps planned to open one or two more gates Sunday in a painstaking process designed to give residents more time to prepare, as well as allow wildlife a chance to stay dry.

Homes and buildings in Mississippi are inundated by the rising river water. (Photo: Associated Press)

The water will flow 20 miles south into the Atchafalaya Basin. From there it will roll on to Morgan City, an oil-and-seafood hub and a community of 12,000, and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.

Michael Grubb, whose home is located just outside the Morgan City floodwalls, hired a contractor this week to raise his house from 2 feet to 8 feet off the ground. It took a crew of 20 workers roughly 17 hours to jack up the house onto wooden blocks.

"I wanted to save this house desperately," said Grubb, 54. "This has tapped us out. This is our life savings here, but it's worth every penny."

Three feet of water flooded Grubb's home the last time the Morganza spillway was opened.

Water from the swollen Atchafalaya River already was creeping into his backyard, but Grubb was confident his home will stay dry. He has a generator and a boat he plans to use for grocery runs.

"This is our home. How could we leave our home?" he said.

The water came perilously close to overtopping Morgan City's floodwalls in 1973. Since then, they have been raised to 24 feet and aren't expected to be overtopped, but officials have filled sandbags to shore up the levees. The water was expected to reach Morgan City around Tuesday.

"These levees will be under a lot of pressure for a long period of time," said Corps Col. Ed Fleming.

The crest of the Mississippi was still more than a week away from the Morganza spillway, and when it arrives, officials expect it to linger. The bulge has broken river-level records held since the 1920s in some places as it rolled down the river, and prompted the corps to take drastic steps to protect lives.

The corps blew up a levee in Missouri — inundating an estimated 200 square miles of farmland and damaging or destroying about 100 homes — to take the pressure off floodwalls protecting the town of Cairo, Ill., population 2,800.

The Morganza flooding is more controlled, however, and residents are warned by the corps each year in written letters, reminding them of the possibility of opening the spillway, which is 4,000 feet long and has 125 bays.

At the site of the spillway, water splashed over the gates on one side before a vertical crane hoisted the 10-ton, steel panel to the let water out. Typically, the spillway, built in 1954, is dry on both sides.

This is the second spillway to be opened in Louisiana. About a week ago, the corps used cranes to remove some of the Bonnet Carre's wooden barriers, sending water into the massive Lake Ponchatrain and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

By Sunday, all 350 bays at the 7,000-foot Bonnet Carre structure were to be open. The Morganza was expecting to only open up about a quarter of its gates.

The spillways could be opened for weeks, or perhaps less time, if the river flow starts to subside.

In Vicksburg, Miss., where five neighborhoods were underwater, a steady stream of onlookers posed for pictures on a river bluff overlooking a bridge that connects Louisiana and Mississippi. Some people posed for pictures next to a Civil War cannon while others carried Confederate battle flags being given away by a war re-enactor.

Vicksburg was the site of a pivotal Civil War battle and is home to thousands of soldier graves.

James Mims, 50, drove about an hour from Calhoun, La., with his wife, son and three grandchildren to snap a photo.

"It's history in the making, and we're seeing it happen," Mims said.

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