KROTZ SPRINGS, La. — Deputies warned people Sunday to get out as Mississippi River water gushing from a floodgate for the first time in four decades crept ever closer to communities in Louisiana Cajun country, slowly filling a river basin like a giant bathtub.
Most residents heeded the warnings and headed for higher ground, even in places where there hasn't been so much as a trickle, hopeful that the flooding engineered to protect New Orleans and Baton Rouge would be merciful to their way of life.
Days ago, many of the towns known for their Cajun culture and drawling dialect fluttered with activity as people filled sandbags and cleared out belongings. By Sunday, some areas were nearly empty as the water from the Mississippi River, swollen by snowmelt and heavy rains, slowly rolled across the Atchafalaya River basin. It first started to come, in small amounts, into people's yards in Melville on Sunday. But it still had yet to move farther downstream.
The floodwaters could reach depths of 20 feet in the coming weeks, though levels were nowhere close to that yet.
The spillway's opening diverted water from heavily populated New Orleans and Baton Rouge — along with chemical plants and oil refineries along the Mississippi's lower reaches — easing pressure on the levees there in the hope of avoiding potentially catastrophic floods.
In Butte La Rose, some 50 miles downstream from where the Morganza spillway was opened, no water was expected until at least later Sunday.
Chalmers Wheat, 54, was among the few left — and even he was headed for his father's home in Baton Rouge outside the flood zone. He and his brother were making a few final preparations to protect his home with plastic lining and sandbags.
"It's almost like a ghost town," said Wheat, who was helped by his twin brother, Chandler.
The Army Corps of Engineers has taken drastic steps to prevent flooding. Engineers blew up a levee in Missouri — inundating an estimated 200 square miles of farmland and damaging or destroying about 100 homes — to take the pressure off floodwalls protecting the town of Cairo, Ill., population 2,800.