RENA LARA, Miss. – Floodwaters from the bloated Mississippi River and its tributaries spilled across farm fields, cut off churches, washed over roads and forced people from their homes Wednesday in the Mississippi Delta, a poverty-stricken region only a generation or two removed from sharecropping days.
People used boats to navigate flooded streets as the crest rolled slowly downstream, bringing misery to poor, low-lying communities. Hundreds have left their homes in the Delta in the past several days as the water rose toward some of the highest levels on record.
The flood crest is expected to push past the Delta by late next week.
“It’s getting scary,” said Rita Harris, 43, who lives in a tiny wooden house in the shadow of the levee in the Delta town of Rena Lara, population 500. “They won’t let you go up there to look at the water.”
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour urged people to get out if they think there is even a chance their homes will flood. He said there is no reason to believe a levee on the Yazoo River would fail, but if it did, 107 feet of water would flow over small towns.
“More than anything else, save your life and don’t put at risk other people who might have to come in and save your lives,” he said.
While some farms in the cotton-, rice- and corn-growing Mississippi Delta are prosperous, there is also grinding poverty. Nine of the 11 counties that touch the Mississippi River in Mississippi have poverty rates at least double the national average of 13.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The governor said the state is asking local officials to get in touch with people who might have no electricity and phones and thus no way to get word of the flooding. “It’s a tiny number, but we have to find them,” Barbour said.
Late Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for 14 counties in Mississippi because of the flooding. Housing and home repairs will be covered and low-interest loans to cover uninsured damage will be available.
Swollen by weeks of heavy rain and snowmelt, the Mississippi has been breaking high-water records that have stood since the 1920s and ’30s. It is projected to crest at Vicksburg on May 19 and shatter the mark set there during the cataclysmic Great Flood of 1927. The crest is expected to reach New Orleans on May 23.
Even after the peak passes, water levels will remain high for weeks, and it could take months for flooded homes to dry out.
About 600,000 acres of cultivated row crops could flood, mainly winter wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton and rice, said Andy Prosser, spokesman with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture. Even if the levees hold, the state expects to lose $150 million to $200 million worth of crops. Mississippi’s catfish farmers could also be wiped out if the Yazoo floods their ponds and washes away their fish.