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NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The government scrambled to shore up the levee system in the Deep South on Thursday to prevent the mighty Mississippi River from overflowing and flooding populated areas.
The Army Corps of Engineers placed high-density plastic sheeting along a 4-mile section of the Yazoo Backwater levee in Mississippi, to keep it from eroding if the levee is overrun, said Kavenaugh Breazeale, spokesman for the agency responsible for flood control.
"That's the biggest monster to a levee -- erosion," said Breazeale. The Yazoo Backwater levee is designed to hold the Yazoo River and the Mississippi from flowing into the south Delta. If there were no levee, up to 2 million acres of land would be flooded, he said.
The Corps also is preparing to open the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana this weekend to prevent massive flooding in New Orleans. Morganza has only been opened once before, in 1973. But without opening the spillway, experts forecast low-lying New Orleans could be flooded with up to 25 feet of water just six years after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city.
The Mississippi River flood, the result of a wet spring and huge snow melt from an unusually stormy winter, has forced the evacuation of thousands of people along the river and its tributaries, swamping river towns and expected to flood 3 million acres of farmland in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas alone.
In Mississippi, residents were bracing for expected record crests at Vicksburg on May 19 and Natchez on May 21.
Areas below sea level are already flooding, even though the river crest dates are a week away, said Mike Edmonston, senior weather forecaster with the National Weather Service.
Eddie Spelling's farm in the Delta region was underwater Thursday. "I cannot insure my crops now so the season is a complete loss," Spelling said.
In Chicot County in southeast Arkansas, the Arkansas National Guard is sandbagging to shore up the levee system near Lake Village, a town of about 2,300 people across the Mississippi from Greenville, Miss., according to Chicot County Judge Mark Ball. The river at Greenville was at 63.68 feet Thursday afternoon, almost 16 feet above flood stage and expected to crest at 65 feet on May 16.
"There are always trouble spots in the levee," Ball said. "But with this historic rise, those trouble spots are popping up in unexpected places."
The Delta region is expecting rain Thursday night and Friday, adding to flood worries. "The area is full right now so any more rain will make it worse," said Marty Pope, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service."
Meanwhile, in areas where the river has already crested, emergency officials and residents are still coping with high water and starting a long and difficult clean-up. In Memphis, Tenn., police officers are going out in boats to check on residents in flooded areas who chose not to evacuate and are now are cut off by high water and sealed in their neighborhoods.
"We think those people have significant needs, so we'll be going out to see what we can do for them," said Steve Shular, spokesman for the Shelby County Office of Preparedness.
The 2011 flood has been breaking or challenging records set during historic floods in 1927 and 1937.
The Bonnet Carre spillway near New Orleans was opened on Monday for the first time since 2008. Last week, the Corps blew up a section of the Birds Point levee in Missouri, submerging about 130,000 acres of farmland to ease the flood threat to Kentucky and Illinois river towns.
If Morganza is opened, it would be the first time ever that three of the river's floodways are opened.
Since the historic Mississippi River flood of 1927 improvements have been made in flood control with the building of dams and levees, reservoirs and floodways.
Additional reporting by Leigh Coleman, Suzi Parker, John Branston and Tim Ghianni; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Cynthia Osterman