CUTOFF, Miss. -- Residents in this tiny enclave of homes and fishing camps returned Monday for the first time since evacuating nearly a month ago, getting their first glimpse of the putrid mud and soaked debris left behind now that the Mississippi River's floodwaters have started to recede.
The tally of the damage is just beginning in places like Cutoff, an unincorporated community on the unprotected side of the river in Mississippi's Tunica County. The Mississippi River has displaced thousands on its march to the sea. The rising waters led the Army Corps of Engineers to blow up a Missouri levee to save Midwest communities and open spillways in Louisiana to lessen the risk in heavily populated places like New Orleans.
In Cutoff, Javier Campos couldn't quite get to his own home. So he pulled on a pair of gloves and started helping a neighbor salvage what he could.
"It's terrible, man. Everybody needs help," Campos said. "So I'm helping my neighbors, and when I can get back to my house, maybe they will help me."
Tunica County Planning Director Pepper Bradford said the last sections of the community will be opened sometime Monday in what he called a milestone for the roughly 225 households that are permanent residences in a series of fishing camps. Mississippi state Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, pointed to a house flipped on its side as he surveyed the damage.
"I don't know what these people are going to do. This is where they live," he said.
Water from the river is expected to remain high into the summer, and flooding already has left in its wake flooded homes, weakened levees, thousands of evacuees and devastated farmland.
The Atchafalaya River in southern Louisiana, overflowing with Mississippi water diverted through the Morganza spillway, was expected to crest Monday at Morgan City. It will be the final place along the Mississippi River system to get the highest water.
Although the water has started dropping in northern Mississippi and Memphis, Tenn., an environmental crisis could be on the horizon in southern Louisiana. The fresh water rolling into the Gulf of Mexico could pose a serious setback for the badly damaged oyster industry, struggling to recover from last year's BP oil spill. Too much fresh water can kill oysters.
"The worst is not over yet," said John Tesvich, the chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, an industry group. "We're starting to see freshwater in various areas. The next couple of weeks will be critical."
The floodwaters have been the highest on record at more than half of the gauges along the fortress-like levee system built up between Missouri and Louisiana. Sandbags and emergency barriers have been placed around towns, at gaps in the levee system, and around businesses, power facilities and other critical infrastructure.
So far, the Army Corps of Engineers is confident its flood system will hold up. And it's performed well so far, though crews up and down the river have had to chase sand boils -- where water undercuts the levee and land on the other side seems to boil.
There will be a lot to watch over the coming weeks. Engineers say levees are weakened when floodwaters recede and erode the earthen ramparts. Also, there is the possibility for water levels to rise again as more storms dump water into the Mississippi River valley.
At the southern end of the Atchafalaya River, there was a guarded sense of relief last week as the corps began closing bays at the Morganza spillway, source of the water threatening Morgan City, an oil and seafood town of about 10,000 people.
The Atchafalaya's expected crest Monday was forecast to reach levels not seen since the landmark 1973 flooding in the Mississippi Valley. Morgan City was on guard as the crest approached.
Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte said the 24-foot floodwall protecting the city was doing its job. The larger fear, he said, was the possible overtopping of levees at Lake Palourde as a result of backwater flooding.
"Within a day or so of (the cresting) you'd pretty well be convinced, OK, we're not going to have an overtopping. Now, all we need to do is make sure our levees are in good shape," he said.
The American Waterways Operators, which represents the U.S. barge industry, said conditions are slowly returning to normal on the Mississippi. However, traffic restrictions, including the number of barges that can be towed at once, remain in effect, said AWO spokeswoman Anne Burns. Most of the backup has cleared, but traffic is still moving slowly to ensure the levees aren't damaged, she said.
Barges haul grain and other farm products from the Midwest to the Port of South Louisiana, where they are loaded on ocean-going vessels for exports or stored in grain elevators to await shipping.
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