Michael Kunzelman / Associated Press
BUTTE LAROSE, La. (AP) -- Cajun-country towns in the path ofMississippi River floodwaters were all but deserted Monday asresidents heeded warnings to seek higher ground after a majorfloodgate was opened for the first time in four decades.
Sheriff's deputies and National Guardsmen have been showing upat residents' front doors and telling them to leave since theMorganza spillway was opened Saturday to divert the bulgingMississippi's water away from the heavily populated cities of BatonRouge and New Orleans.
On Monday, 75-year-old Leif Montin watched a truck tow away astorage pod containing most of the furniture he and his wife havein their home in Butte Larose, a community emptied by residentsfleeing the rising waters.
'I guess you guys are ready to get out of here,' the driversaid to Montin.
'Yep. Pretty much,' responded Montin, who plans to spend a fewmore nights in the house or a nearby camp before leaving town.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama flew to Memphis, Tenn., onMonday and met with families affected when the river flooded thereas well as local officials, first responders and volunteers.
Days ago, many of the towns in Cajun country bustled withactivity as people filled sandbags and cleared out belongings. ByMonday, areas were virtually empty as the water from theMississippi River, swollen by snowmelt and heavy rains, slowlyrolled across the Atchafalaya River basin. A hand-paintedsign infront a deserted Butte Larose home said it all: 'My slice ofheaven force-flooded straight to hell. God help us all.'
The floodwaters could reach depths of 20 feet in the comingweeks, though levels were nowhere close to that yet in Butte Laroseand nearby towns that lie about 50 miles downstream of theMorganza. Water hadn't reached Montin's home, but a canal behind ithas been rising by about a foot a day since the Morganza wasopened. He's trying to remain optimistic that his house won't takeon too much damage.
'I'm keeping my fingers crossed,' he said.
Elsewhere, in an effort to keep a major shipping connectionbetween the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River open, the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers moved in a fifth dredge to dig sediment outof the Southwest Pass. A high river brings a huge amount ofsediment and the dredges were being used to keep the 45-footchannel needed for deep-draft shipping.
Over the weekend, the Port of New Orleans said it had been toldby the Coast Guard that shipping probably would continue largelyunhindered on the lower Mississippi.
About 30 miles north of Butte Larose in the town of Melville,Mary Ryder, her fiance and her fiance's father were loading up atrailer Sunday with as many belongings as they could fit to driveover the levee to stay with relatives on the other side of town.
Ryder lives in a mandatory evacuation area, where water is startingto creep into backyards. They worried about what might happen if abroader evacuation is ordered.
'They say we have to leave town. We have nowhere to go,' shesaid. 'What are we going to do? I have no idea. We need help uphere.'
The spillway's opening diverted water from the two majorLouisiana cities -- along with chemical plants and oil refineriesalong the Mississippi's lower reaches -- easing pressure on thelevees there in the hope of avoiding potentially catastrophicfloods.
That choice angers John Muse, who drove from Lafayette toMelville to help his 86-year-old father-in-law Clovis Cole move hisbelongs. He said officials seem to be paying more attention to theconcerns of Baton Rouge and New Orleans than people who live in thebasin.
'They hurt a lot of feelings by putting that water in here likethey did,' he said. 'What's happening here, I'll tell ya, it'snot fair.'
It will be at least a week before the Mississippi River crestarrives at the Morganza spillway, where officials opened twomassive gates on Saturday and another two Sunday. There are 125 inall. The Mississippi has broken river-level records that had heldsince the 1920s in some places. The Morganza was last opened in1973.
The Army Corps of Engineers has taken drastic steps to preventflooding. Engineers blew up a levee in Missouri -- inundating anestimated 200 square miles of farmland and damaging or destroyingabout 100 homes -- to take the pressure off floodwalls protectingthe town of Cairo, Ill., population 2,800.
The Morganza flooding is more controlled, however, and residentsare warned each year that the spillway could be opened. A spillwayat the 7,000-foot Bonnet Carre structure in Louisiana also has beenopened.
It seemed animals didn't want to be stuck anywhere: Deer, hogsand rabbits have started running from the water flowing near thefloodgates, said Lt. Col. Joey Broussard of the LouisianaDepartment of Wildlife and Fisheries. An electronic sign onInterstate 10 warned of a possible animal exodus: 'Wildlifecrossing possible. Use caution,' it read.
Despite the mandatory evacuation order, Krotz Springs town clerkSuzanne Bellau said it was unlikely the sheriff's office wouldforce people to leave. For most, the worst part was wondering whatmay happen. National Guardsmen were building a second levee tobolster protection for the town.
'It's the unknown, that's the problem,' Bellau said. 'Is itgoing to come into their homes or not? And the people who areleaving, what are they coming back to?'
Bernadine Turner, who lives in a mandatory evacuation zone nearKrotz Springs, had been moving things out over the weekend and wasstill working on it Monday.
'They're going to let us go and come until the water startscoming up,' the 49-year-old said. 'We're hoping it's still a fewdays away.'
The bayou flowing through their backyard showed little signs ofrising. But Turner said a heavy rainstorm is enough to drive waterinto their yard, so she was taking no chances.
'There's no doubt it's going to come up. We don't have floodinsurance and most people here don't. Man, it would be hard tostart all over,' she said.