Crest lower than predicted|[04/20/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tourists flock in to see Mighty Mississippi

After three weeks at levels above flood stage in Vicksburg, the Mississippi River was cresting Saturday at 50.8 feet — slightly below earlier forecasts of 51 feet. Flood stage is 43 feet.

It is only the fifth time in the past 80 years the river has topped 50 feet at Vicksburg, and it is the worst flood since 1973, when the river crested at 51.6 feet.

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As the river rose over the past three weeks, so too has statewide and national media attention paid to the event. In turn, many residents of inland Mississippi and Louisiana have made day trips to Vicksburg to ascend the city bluffs and take in the historic view, said Elmeree Bradley, supervisor of the Mississippi State Welcome Center near the U.S. 80 bridge, overlooking the river.

“We’ve had more visitors than usual from places like Jackson and Clinton and others, and they’re coming just to look at the river because it’s at a record stage,” she said. “A lot of out-of-state tourists are stopping in to take a look, too.”

Steve Thomas moved to Jackson from Muskogee, Okla., in August. He’s been following the flooding in news reports, and decided to take a day trip to Vicksburg Thursday to see it for himself.

“I’ve never seen the river this high, and I don’t know when it will reach this level again, so I decided to come to Vicksburg strictly to see it,” he said while surveying the river from the welcome center.

A self-described “history buff,” Thomas said seeing the high water in person, as opposed to photographs, reminds him of his respect for nature, and conjures up wonderment about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 — the most destructive river flood in American history.

“Coming here and seeing it, you can understand the power of nature with one look,” he said. “It makes me think about man’s attempt to harness and control the river through the years, and knowing sooner or later this big boy is going to reclaim its path again.”

Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said tourism in the city has remained stable through the flood, but noted his office has had to dispel a lot of rumors and do much reassuring for prospective visitors.

“We’ve tried to be very sensitive in how we approach promoting the city at a time like this. We are very concerned as citizens of Vicksburg for those who are in distress due to the flooding,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve been trying to let everyone know that our tourist sites and downtown area has not been affected.”

One of the most popular places for tourists and locals to view the river is City Front, where city sewer employee Walter Smith has been stationed in recent weeks to operate a pump that controls seepage through the crossties placed in the floodwall.

“I wish I had a dollar for every car that stops down here. Right now, this is the most popular spot in Vicksburg,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of people who want to see the river.”

Mississippi River Tours, which operates the Sweet Olive boat, has been offering daily and evening tours of the flooded river for weeks. Co-owner Ann Jones said attendance is down from last April, but noted those who have taken the tour are thrilled to get on the high and mighty river.

“People are very impressed. The Mississippi is just so huge right now, it’s probably twice the width it normally is, which makes the sunsets just gorgeous,” she said. “We’ve also had a few groups that have cancelled because of all the publicity, even after we let them know we’ve changed our route to stay near to the bank for safety while we’re on the river.”

Those who have yet to catch a glimpse of the bulging river will still have plenty of time to do so following the crest.

“It’s going to be above flood stage for a while,” said Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center Hydrologist Angelo Dalessandro. “Our extended forecasts show the river still at 45 feet on May 14. It could take more than four weeks for it to get below flood stage at Vicksburg.”

The river at Vicksburg will recede slowly, with the stage forecast to remain at 50.8 feet through Tuesday, and then drop at a slow rate. South of Vicksburg, the Mississippi is forecast to crest at all cities by Tuesday.

Meanwhile, 25 additional bays of the Bonne Carre Spillway were opened Saturday, bringing the total number of bays open to 160. The spillway has 350 bays, which when opened allow floodwaters to dump into the Gulf of Mexico via Lake Pontchartrain.

Since the river at Vicksburg topped flood stage of 43 feet on March 29:

At least 132 residents have been displaced from 71 inundated homes in Vicksburg, according to city emergency management officials.

An estimated 304,000 acres of cropland are flooded in the Yazoo backwater area, according the Vicksburg District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. An additional 100,000 acres are expected to go under water before the Steele Bayou Control Structure can be opened in mid-May.

Roughly 1,100 employees of LeTourneau Technologies remained laid off as the road to the riverside offshore rig construction site is under water and has been closed since Tuesday, April 8.

A temporary Red Cross shelter opened Wednesday at the Church of Christ on North Frontage Road. As of today, one resident had entered the shelter. A shelter at Calvary Baptist Church on Warriors Trail was open for a total of 10 days beginning April 1, and had served as a refuge for up to 12 residents of Ford subdivision.

Crossties have been placed in all of the openings on the Vicksburg floodwall, closing off City Front.

Roadways in Vicksburg and Warren County covered with water and closed include Williams Street, Ford Road, Eva Street, Chickasaw Road, Long Lake Road, Thompson Lake Road, Kings Point Road, LeTourneau Road and Mississippi 465.

Mississippi RiverCREST FORECAST50.8 feet SaturdaySATURDAY’S STAGE: 50.8 feetFLOOD STAGE: 43 feetSTEELE BAYOU:Landside: 91.0Riverside: 100.0Flood PhotosSlideshow of All Photos