VICKSBURG, Miss With weeks to go before the flood waters of the crested Mississippi River fully recede, officials in Vicksburg, Mississippi, are advising caution and preparing for an aggressive cleanup.
"We are urging everyone to be patient," Mayor Paul Winfield told Reuters on Saturday. "They need to stay away from their homes and their properties until they're given clearance."
More than 2,000 residents and businesses evacuated Vicksburg and thousands of acres (hectares) of corn and cotton fields were flooded after weeks of heavy rain and runoff from an unusually snowy winter caused the river to rise to historic levels.
The river remains high above flood stage at Vicksburg and was expected to crest downstream at Natchez on Saturday at 61.7 feet, more than three feet (1 meter) above the record crest in 1937.
About three to six inches of rain over the next five days was forecast in the Ohio River Valley and the extra saturation could delay the Mississippi River's return to lower levels, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brittney Whitehead.
"It doesn't look like this rain is going to cause any more flooding," she said. "It may just slow down the decrease in the river levels that we've been seeing."
For residents in Vicksburg, the lingering water has put the routines of daily life on hold.
"This is a catastrophe happening at the pace of a snail," said school superintendent Elizabeth Duran Swinford.
Major roads are closed. Businesses are cut off by flood waters, leaving employees unable to get to work.
The city's animal shelter is at near capacity with dogs, cats, horses, chickens and goats until their owners find stable housing of their own.
Students and teachers at the city's smallest elementary school have for the last two weeks shared space with another elementary and intermediate school.
Swinford moved them as a precaution because their own school lies in a low area with a creek running behind it. She also took a step that initially drew criticism, opting to build a $65,000, six-foot-high levee around the school.
On Friday, she climbed the levee in black stilettos to point out the flooded playground, where only the tops of swing-sets and play forts were visible. The school building remained dry.
"It could have gone either way, but I'm going to err on the side of safety. I don't have time to wait on FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) when I have to open my schools back up" in early August, she said.
On the outskirts of the city, business has plummeted for Pig Willies bar owner John Harper since area roads closed.
The bar, frequented by many of the nearby farmers, usually boasts 40 to 50 customers on weeknights. One night last week, Harper served a single patron.
He estimated it would be three weeks before business picked up again.
"There's nothing we can do 'til then except sit here and lose money," he said.
(Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jerry Norton)