May 16, 2011 / 2:02 PM / 9 years ago

Historic Vicksburg, Mississippi faces flood siege

VICKSBURG, Mississippi (Reuters) - The historic Civil War city of Vicksburg, which withstood a 47-day Union army siege

A barge is seen as backwater from the swelling Mississippi River slowly takes over in Vicksburg, Mississippi May 13, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner

in 1863, was facing a different kind of invasion on Monday as flooding threatened to top an earth levee nearby.

The city itself is perched atop a bluff overlooking the river, and the Vicksburg National Military Park marking the Civil War battle is not threatened by the flooding, according to the National Park Service.

But areas nearby are as the water level at Vicksburg reached 56.66 feet at 4 p.m. local time, several inches above the record 56.2 feet set in 1927, according to the National Weather Service.

Experts say the river will rise nearly another foot in Vicksburg before Thursday, when it is expected to crest at 57.5 feet — 14.5 feet above flood level.

As of Sunday, 2.1 million acres of land were underwater in central Mississippi, Ben Robinson, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Vicksburg district, said on Monday.

The Yazoo Backwater Levee has a foot of earth remaining before waters begin lapping over it, said Marty Pope, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

“You can see it right now ready to come over the top,” said Ed McGuiness, a cattle farmer who lives near Vicksburg. “It is like a slow death.”

Vicksburg was the site of a pivotal Civil War battle, when Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army besieged the city until its surrender on July 4, 1863. The surrender split the Confederacy, giving control of the Mississippi River to the Union.

Battling the flooding this year, the Army Corps of Engineers placed high-density plastic sheeting along a four-mile back section of the levee near Vicksburg to keep it from eroding if it is overtopped.

The levee was designed to be overtopped but that has not happened since the 1927 flood, which killed as many as 1,000 people, said Corps spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale.

The Mississippi, swollen by a rainy spring and melt from an especially snowy winter, has inundated homes and farmland across Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and southern Illinois, and the river continues to rise as it moves south through Mississippi and Louisiana.

The river is forecast to crest at 63 feet at Natchez, Mississippi, on Saturday. The Corps revised the crest date and water level near Greenville, saying the river now is expected to peak at 64.3 feet early Tuesday.

Flood waters in Mississippi have forced evacuations, road closures and the shuttering of more than a dozen riverfront casinos, a major economic engine for the state.

Up to 5,000 Mississippi residents have evacuated or will evacuate as the flooding spreads.

Slideshow (21 Images)

Major roads and highways are closed in and around Vicksburg, including a portion of U.S. Highway 61, according to the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

Mary Beth Quarles, 63, walked in downtown Vicksburg on Monday toward the blocked-off end of Washington Street, where about 20 feet away the road was covered in water. The top of a submerged gas station could be seen in the distance.

“I used to use Washington Street to go to work,” she said. “I don’t even know if the building is still standing.”

Additional reporting by Leigh Coleman; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jerry Norton and Greg McCune

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