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Louisiana's Cajun country braces for historic flooding

Residents in Louisiana's Cajun country are preparing for what's expected to be the worst flooding in more than 80 years as the Mississippi surges toward seven rural parishes along the Atchafalaya River Basin.

By Bill SasserCorrespondent / May 21, 2011

Deputy Troy LeBlanc of the St. Martin Parish Sheriff's office speaks with Kathy McMichael, as parish officials inform residents of a mandatory evacuation order beginning within days in Butte LaRose, Louisiana. The town, within the Atchafalaya Basin, is expected to flood up to several feet.

Lee Celano/Reuters

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Morgan City, La.

Battered by recent hurricanes and last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, residents of Louisiana’s Cajun country are now bracing for the biggest river flood the area has seen in over eighty years.

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A week ago the US Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway north of Baton Rouge, sending torrents of flood water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River Basin.

Designed to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from severe flooding, the diversion into the Atchafalaya could bring 5 to 25 feet of water to seven rural parishes along the river basin, affecting more than 25,000 people.

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Parish officials have welcomed the news that the corps will likely open 25 percent of the Morganza’s capacity instead of the predicted 50 percent, a decision that could lower flood levels.

Though the river and surrounding bayous are topping their banks, floodwaters that were expected to have already inundated some communities along the Atchafalaya are moving slower than forecast.

“A combination of factors, including a longstanding drought in the area, and the Corps slowing releasing water into the Morganza, to give wildlife a chance to escape, has slowed the water down,” said Scott Lincoln, a hydrologist and forecaster for the National Weather Service.

The flood is now expected to crest at Butte LaRose at the midpoint of the river basin on May 27 at 24.5 feet, and at Morgan City near the Gulf on May 29 at 11 feet. The slower arrival of the flood has given officials and residents more time to prepare.

“We’ve been here for generations, family after family after family, and hurricanes and floods are something you learn to live with,” said Amanda Frederick, who lives in the community of Stephensville, just north of Morgan City in St. Martin Parish.

Sandwiched between two canals, the subdivision where she lives last flooded in 1993. In 2008, Hurricane Gustav tore shingles off her roof, demolished her backyard fence and shed, and broke windows with flying debris.

Six hundred sandbags

To prepare for the coming flood, this week Frederick hand-packed 600 nylons bags provided by the parish with sand and has built a three foot-tall mini levee ringing her house.

“We’re expecting about two feet of water in our yards here, so it could be a lot worse, but it’s still a lot of work to keep it out,” she said.

Up the Atchafalaya, residents of Butte LaRose faced a mandatory evacuation order Saturday morning, leaving the hamlet a ghost town. In the nearby town of Henderson, zydeco dance halls that would be packed on normal weekends stand empty.

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