LIVONIA, Louisiana (Reuters) - Floodwater released from a key Mississippi River spillway surged through the Louisiana bayou on Tuesday, and levees protecting the state’s two biggest cities held as river flows neared their peak.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway on Saturday in an effort to spare the downstream cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge from the Mississippi River’s record flooding.
Towns and crop lands along the Atchafalaya River basin that are in the path of the diverted floodwaters could see as much as 20 feet of water in coming days.
Flooding has reached places like Butte LaRose and St. Landry Parish at the northern end of the basin, putting some houses underwater.
In towns like Krotz Springs and Morgan City to the south, construction crews have erected miles of flood barriers, assisted by National Guard troops and even prison inmates, as they await the rising water.
The floodwater is making its way south from the spillway more slowly than the Corps originally forecast, in part due to drought-parched soil that is soaking up some of the water, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said at a press briefing.
About 3,349 people in St. Landry and St. Martin parishes have evacuated, he said, with no deaths or injuries reported.
“This is a serious water event,” Jindal said. “There’s still an awful lot of water headed our way and it will be here in many cases for weeks.”
Corps officials say opening the spillway for the first time since 1973 has avoided the possibility of severe flooding of the state capital Baton Rouge, New Orleans and a giant complex of petrochemical plants and refineries that process 12 percent of U.S. gasoline supply.
River levels in New Orleans have crested but will remain high for several weeks, putting the city’s ring of flood defenses to the test. In Baton Rouge, river levels will hit their peak on Wednesday and remain there for several weeks, Jindal said.
Weeks of heavy rains and runoff from an unusually snowy winter caused the Mississippi River to rise, flooding thousands of homes and 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of farmland in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas and evoking comparisons to historic floods in 1927 and 1937.
In Livonia, a small town east of Krotz Springs, Bobby Coleman recalled the last big flood of 1973 as she settled into a chair at a convenience store to play at a video poker machine.
“It was rough in ‘73, way more water than this,” Coleman said. “Now it’s wide, but not deep, not at all like ‘73.”
About 2,500 people live in the spillway’s flood path and 22,500 others could be affected by backwater flooding -- the water pushed back into streams and tributaries that cannot flow normally into what will be an overwhelmed Atchafalaya River.
Some 3,000 square miles (7,770 sq km) of land could be inundated for several weeks.
Jindal estimated the state’s crop damage would reach $300 million.
Failing to open the spillway would have put New Orleans at risk of flooding that computer models indicated would eclipse 2005, when Hurricane Katrina flooded about 80 percent of the city and killed 1,500 people.
After flood evacuees return to their homes, they will have to be on the lookout for snakes and other critters that often nestle in abandoned homes after high water events.
“Now all we’re worried about is the snakes,” Coleman said. “Oh, they’re coming.”
Writing by Chris Baltimore; Editing by Eric Beech