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Life along the Mississippi: Waiting and watching as the river rises

The US Army Corps of Engineers may open the Morganza Floodway to divert the surging Mississippi away from larger metropolitan areas. The clock is ticking for Stephensville, like most small towns located along backwater tributaries.

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This region has seen its fair share of flooding over the decades – “big time,” says Randy Chaisson, who grew up in the area. Which means that, to some, these last few days have been less about panicking and more about seeing just how much damage the area will incur compared to the last time.

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“We’re going to get some of it but I don’t know how much,” says Mr. Chaisson, a retired carpenter who was surveying the activity on his bicycle.

Like any disaster in any part of the world, the elderly and poorest are the most vulnerable.

The view from the backyard of a housing project in Morgan City is of local police sandbagging a canal. As men shout above the grinding of Bobcats, a group of seniors quietly have their daily chat under a gazebo.

Flo Menard says she has no choice but to stay because she has nowhere to go. “I’m not even worried about it,” Ms. Menard says. She and her friends will go only “when it hits and they knock on our door.”

With bayous, canals and lakes in every direction, this is the same region still reeling from an economy upended by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and subsequent moratorium on deepwater oil drilling.

Most people live here because their way of life over generations is connected to water. It is common to see a boat, not a car, parked in a driveway and even a second on the front lawn. Crawfish traps stack up against backyard fences. The local convenience stores display photographs of proud faces holding up their winning catches – fish, turtle, or alligator.

While the area has changed in the recent past, with more immigrants from Vietnam and Mexico, many say the way of life has not. Which is why some, like Pat Fryou of Amelia, says she’s more worried about losing her newly planted flowerbeds, which she is asking her husband to make sure his sandbags protect.

'A good place to live'

“It’s a good place. We know everybody on the bayou,” Ms. Fryou.

Still, there is evidence of strain.

Gregg Logan is driving out of town, moving valuables such as the family china and antique furniture to a public storage space he is renting in Morgan City that is already fortified by levees. His home, raised 10 feet above the flood plain, sits on four separate layers: concrete, fill dirt, river sand and a concrete slab. Plus, he has ample flood insurance and his home has never received water.

Still, he doesn’t want to take any chances. “It’s gonna get bad,” says Mr. Logan.

Others are leaving – and they don’t plan to return.

“All that sandbagging is not going to be enough,” says Bonnie Acosta. She has no flood insurance. The home she rents sticks out because it is the only one on the block that looks like it was a week ago. Her valuables are already moved out of the area, so all she and her husband have left to do is take a walk and view what happened to her block.

“I’m not coming back. Why? We’re going to have water in that house,” Ms. Acosta says, her voice trembling. Behind her sunglasses, she watches her neighbors dig and plant sandbags into knee-high walls. “It’s time.”

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