JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi River flood of 2011 may seem like a thing of the past for people who fled rising waters that never came, yet the final toll is shrouded in murky water for thousands of people devastated as the flood made its way from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico.
Thousands of acres of crops, timber and catfish farms are still flooded, mostly by tributaries that backed up because the Mississippi River was so high. Hundreds are still displaced from flooded homes. Some people had nothing to go home to.
In the Mississippi Delta, Tim Saxton is still praying for the levees to hold — not the levees on the Mississippi River, but the ones on his 500-acre catfish farm. Saxton is not sure how bad Five Mile Fisheries was damaged because it's still under water. So he waits. And wonders.
"It's going to be tough on a 60-year-old man to start over, but I'm sure going to try," Saxton vowed.
Some were more fortunate.
Hundreds of people living along Louisiana's Atchafalaya River heeded mandatory evacuation orders when the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza floodway north of Baton Rouge for the first time since 1973. The corps had warned residents of Butte LaRose that diverting the Mississippi River's floodwaters into the Atchafalaya basin could inundate the town.
Several weeks later, that dire forecast hasn't come close to fruition. The slowly rising water has damaged a few homes in Butte LaRose but spared the vast majority. The mandatory evacuation order has been lifted.
Farther downstream in Morgan City, even worse conditions were predicted. So far, the oil and seafood hub hasn't seen any significant backwater flooding, said Mayor Tim Matte. However, it could be another month before the water levels cease to be a concern. That has left officials consumed with flood preparations at a time they would normally be focused on the hurricane season that began Wednesday. The season is expected to be busier than normal, with government forecasters predicting there could be as many as 18 named tropical storms.
The overestimated flood projections were based on the best data available at the time, corps spokesman Ken Holder said. But the corps didn't open as many gates on the Morganza floodway as initially anticipated, while drought conditions apparently blunted the impact of river water diverted into the basin.
"We plan for the worst and hope for the best — and we got the best," Holder said. "When officials are charged with protecting public safety, they don't have the luxury of not planning for the worst."
Even if the flooding wasn't as bad as initially feared, it has still been treacherous for those affected. About 5,600 people have applied for government assistance in Mississippi and Tennessee, though the damage is still being assessed because high waters are still causing problems for officials.
And it could take another month to know the extent of damage to catfish farming, said Roger Barlow, president of the Catfish Institute and executive vice president of Catfish Farmers of America, a trade group. Mississippi is the leading U.S. producer of farm-raised catfish, an economic mainstay that generates $200 million in annual sales in the state. It's also not yet clear if the flood will increase prices for consumers.
Meanwhile, early estimates indicate flooding swamped 450,000 acres of cropland and caused more than $250 million in damage to agriculture in Mississippi alone, said Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Gov. Haley Barbour. However, an exact measure of the damage is not yet available because thousands of acres are still flooded.
Nonetheless, some row crop farmers still hope to salvage part of the season. Brett Robinson hopes to start planting soybeans Monday on a small fraction of his land to replace the corn he lost, but most of his land near Yazoo City, Miss., is still flooded. Even the parts he could plant may be littered with logs or other debris.
"We're hoping to just drop down there with a planter," Robinson said. "But we'll just have to wait and see."