- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2011

VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — In the area of Mississippi hardest-hit by river flooding, evacuees passed time in shelters Wednesday by reading books, praying or smoking cigarettes as officials said they didn’t expect waters to overflow a nearby levee that protects thousands of acres of farmland. Cargo was slowly moving along the bloated Mississippi River after a costly daylong standstill.

Some of the worst flooding in Mississippi has been in the Vicksburg area, where people have been living in shelters for nearly two weeks. It’s anyone’s guess when they’ll be able to return to what’s left of their homes. The river is expected to crest there Thursday, but the governor said it could take until late June for water to retreat in certain places.

“Lord only knows when it’s going to recede. It’s so much water,” said evacuee Steven Cole, who’s staying at a Vicksburg church being used as shelter for Red Cross victims.

Barge traffic on the river had resumed after the Coast Guard closed a 15-mile stretch at Natchez, Miss. for much of Tuesday, blocking vessels heading toward the Gulf of Mexico and others trying to return north after dropping off their freight.

Such interruptions could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars for each day the barges are idled, as the toll from the weeks of flooding from Arkansas to Louisiana continues to mount.

Barges that haul coal, timber, iron, steel and more than half of America’s grain exports were allowed to pass at the slowest possible speed because their wakes could increase the strain on levees designed to hold back the river, officials said.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Moland said tests indicated sandbagging and other measures to protect most of the area could withstand the wakes if the vessels were ordered to move through at the slowest possible speed. It’s not clear how long barges would only be able to move one at a time.

In Vidalia, La., across the river from Natchez, Carla Jenkins was near tears as she watched the first tows and barges move north after the reopening.

“The water from the wakes just keeps coming into our buildings. We’re going to have a lot more damage,” said Jenkins, who owns Vidalia Dock and Storage.

The closure at Natchez was the third in a series of recent moves designed to protect homes and businesses behind levees and floodwalls along the river.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway, choosing to flood rural areas with fewer homes to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Another spillway near New Orleans was opened earlier, but it did not threaten homes.

The hardest-hit part of Mississippi is the area from Vicksburg northeast to Yazoo City, along the Yazoo River. Officials had been closely watching water inch up to the Yazoo Backwater Levee north of Vicksburg, but on Wednesday the Army Corps said it doesn’t expect the water to overflow the levee. Early predictions had been that at least a foot of water could pour over the top, flooding tens of thousands of acres of farmland in the Delta.

But forecasters lowered their expectation for how high floodwaters will get. They’re now forecasting that the Mississippi River will crest at Vicksburg at 57.1 feet on Thursday, down a few inches from recent predictions.

Corps spokesman Wayne Stroupe says that means if water does go over the Yazoo Backwater Levee, it would be only a trickle.

“We’re going to be all right. If it overtops, it’s going to be a trickle,” Stroupe said.

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