- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 11, 2011

VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — William Jefferson paddles slowly down his street in a small boat, past his house and around his church, both flooded from the bulging Mississippi River that has rolled into the Delta.

“Half my life is still in there,” he said, pointing to the small white house swamped by several feet of water. “I hate to see it when I go back in.”

The river was taking aim at one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the country after cresting Tuesday at Memphis, Tenn., just inches short of the record set in 1937. Some low-lying Memphis neighborhoods were inundated, but the city’s high levees protected much of the rest of Memphis.

Mr. Jefferson’s neighborhood in Vicksburg, a historic Mississippi city and the site of a pivotal Civil War battle, has been one of the hardest hit. Mr. Jefferson refuses to leave, so he spends his days in the sweltering sun watching the water rise and sleeping in a camper at an intersection that’s likely to flood soon, too.

“If you don’t stay with your stuff, you won’t have it,” he said. “This is what I do every day. Just watch the water.”

Inmates fill sand bags for residents in Butte LaRose, La., on Tuesday, May 10, 2011, in advance of possible flooding brought on by the planned opening of the Morganza Spillway. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received permission to open the Old River Control Structure north of Baton Rouge, which will divert water from the Mississippi River into the spillway in order to alleviate pressure on river levees. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Inmates fill sand bags for residents in Butte LaRose, La., on Tuesday, ... more >

Over the past week or so in the Delta, floodwaters along the rain-swollen river and its backed-up tributaries already have washed away crops, forced many to seek higher ground and closed some of the dockside casinos that are vital to the state’s economy.

The state gambling industry is taking a hit: All 19 casinos along the river will be shut down by the end of the week, costing governments $12 million to $13 million in taxes per month, authorities said. That will put some 13,000 employees temporarily out of work.

But the worst is yet to come, with the crest expected over the next few days. The damage in Memphis was estimated at more than $320 million as the serious flooding began, and an official tally won’t be available until the waters recede.

To the south, there were no early figures on the devastation, but with hundreds of homes already damaged, “we’re going to have a lot more when the water gets to where it’s never been before,” said Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Across the region, federal officials anxiously checked and reinforced the levees, some of which could be put to their sternest test ever.

In northwestern Mississippi, crews have been using dirt and sand to make a levee higher at the Bolivar-Coahoma county line in the north Delta, said Charlie Tindall, attorney for the Mississippi Levee Board. Inmates also put sandbags in a part of the levee where a “sand boil” was discovered Monday night, he said Tuesday. A “sand boil” occurs when water moves under the structure of a levee, sending bubbles up on the other side that make it appear as though the sand is boiling.

About 10 miles north of Vicksburg, contractors lined one side of what is known as a backwater levee with big sheets of plastic to keep it from eroding if floodwaters flow over it as feared — something that has never happened to the levee since it was built in the 1970s.

In Vicksburg, which is at the southern tip of the rich alluvial soil in the central part of the state, the river was projected to peak Saturday just above the record set during the cataclysmic Great Flood of 1927. The town is home to thousands of soldiers’ graves.

Jimmy Mitchell, 46, and his wife and two children have been living in a loaner camper for more than week at a civic arena in Tunica, Miss.

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