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In an isolated town, 15 wait and hope Buck Chute levee holds.
Published May 19, 2011

New York Times

EAGLE LAKE, Miss. - If you need to reach somebody here, this is how.

Go to the end of town and take a right. Then take another right. There on the lakefront sits a low metal building, as impressive as a storage shed.

This is Strick's, as the hand-drawn sign above the front door will tell you. It is the only business still open in Eagle Lake. And starting at 2 p.m. every afternoon and running into the evening, every person in town can be found here. All 15 of them.

While the population of Eagle Lake normally numbers in the hundreds, these few, these happy few, are all that remain. They are the holdouts after a townwide exodus, prompted by concerns over the fat and ferocious Mississippi River, which runs just on the other side of the lake.

Every night they sit in this mostly empty bar, throwing back some beers and eating a communal dinner of hamburgers or crawfish or whatever was brought in by the last person to visit a grocery store.

They tell stories, watch television and talk about any number of things, but usually about the latest measurements of the river, the state of the levees on which they depend for survival and their disappointment in the less hardy souls who took off at the first hint of danger.

"A bunch of people are real sorry they left," said Tim Stennett, 52, a building contractor who took over the bar when Strick himself - Mike Strickland, formally - handed off the keys.

Stennett's wife, Sheryl, became the bartender, although the Stennetts leave the keys with anyone who wants to drink late. Drinks are paid for on the honor system. In keeping with the handwritten admonitions posted throughout the bar, overnight tabs are frowned upon.

The Eagle Lake community, which sits between an expanse of cornfields and picturesque Eagle Lake itself, is a popular spot for fish camps and weekend homes. But most of the residents live here full time, making the 35-mile commute into Vicksburg for work.

With floodwaters closing roads and highways, that trip has now stretched to 140 miles.

To get there from Vicksburg, residents now take a circuitous tour of the Mississippi Delta, driving past sprawling cotton fields and through tiny hamlets like Midnight and Onward, past sparkling lakes that did not exist a week ago and isolated farmer's cottages that may not exist next week if something goes wrong at the levee. The way to Eagle Lake then winds down Low Water Bridge Road, where the water is anything but, and along a one-lane road atop the levee holding back Lake Chotard, swollen as a blister.

Eagle Lake itself is higher by 12 feet, increased by the Corps of Engineers to equalize pressure on the Buck Chute levee along the Mississippi. This elevation swallowed up piers and boat houses, and with the level projected to stay above normal until August, most likely ruined the summer season.

But the predicted deluge that sent nearly everyone running for higher ground has not come to pass, not yet anyway.

The evacuation began after a meeting at the fire station April 29, when a somber host of officials from the Sheriff's Department, the Corps of Engineers and the levee board came and told everyone, in so many words, that they would be wise to leave.

There was talk of rising waters in the lake. Flood estimate maps even more recent than that April 29 meeting show Eagle Lake completely cut off from the outside if the Yazoo River were to overtop the backwater levee - something that was initially expected to happen this past weekend, though now is less certain. But the real concern is that Buck Chute levee.

"If that broke," said Cindy Roberson, a 49-year-old real estate broker who has lived with her husband on the lake for the past eight years, "they told us we'd have 12 hours to evacuate."

A levee breach remains a possibility, and with the crest of the Mississippi scheduled to begin its multiday tenure in Vicksburg today, it is a worry that will continue. If it were to happen, Eagle Lake would simply disappear.

Most did not wait. They packed up belongings, emptied refrigerators and piled garbage into roadside bins for the garbage haulers who have not returned.

Just about anyone who remained after the first exodus was spooked into leaving when officials came door to door, urging people to either leave or to sign forms declaring that they were voluntarily staying and to identify their next of kin.

The preachers left, as did the volunteer firefighting force. The Yore Country Store was shuttered, along with the hotel and the fishing lodge. The lack of mail delivery is a sore spot.

"You know that thing about sleet, snow, dark of night, will not keep this courier from his rounds?" asked Rodney Walters, a 61-year-old retiree from the Corps of Engineers who was nursing a Bud Light. "They were the first ones to quit."

The only vestige of authority remaining is a four-day rotation of two officers from the Warren County Sheriff's Department. They sleep in a back room at the fire station and stop by Strick's for dinner.

During the day, the officers drive around keeping an eye on activity at the levee and watching for looters. They did see a man walking down the street with a shotgun once. They went to Strick's and asked about it.

"That was me," one of the patrons said.

Those at Strick's acknowledge that some think they are a little crazy for staying. But for nearly all of them, their life is the lake.

Most of Stennett's work is on lake houses. Roberson is the sole remaining Eagle Lake representative of Godfrey & Ivy Realty, and all of her properties are along the lake as well. She checks in on them every day.

"It's not rocket science," she said of the calculus behind staying. "This is home."

So even though she's not much of a barfly, nearly every afternoon Roberson is at Strick's, sometimes cooking dinner.

She even spent her Mother's Day here at the lake. Her husband gave her a life jacket.

Floods likely to displace 6,000 in Miss.

Associated Press

More than 4,800 people have been displaced by flooding in Mississippi, more than 2,000 of them in Vicksburg and surrounding areas.

By the time the flooding ends, more than 6,000 people in Mississippi could be forced to leave their homes, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Some of the worst flooding in the state is in the area from Vicksburg northeast to Yazoo City, along the Yazoo River. At the Yazoo Backwater Levee north of Vicksburg, worried officials had been watching water slowly climb up the berm.

Early predictions had been that at least a foot of water could pour over the top, flooding tens of thousands of acres of farmland. But on Wednesday the Army Corps of Engineers said it did not expect the water to overflow the levee. And even if it does, the amount will be only a trickle.

Forecasters also lowered their expectation for the river's crest at Vicksburg, estimating a height of 57.1 feet today, down a few inches from recent predictions. The crest downstream at Natchez was predicted to happen Saturday.

But after the crest, it could be days before the water starts going down, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Wednesday morning on CBS's The Early Show. "There'll be areas in the Mississippi Delta that'll still be flooded, not only in the middle of June, some into late June," Barbour said.

In Louisiana, river levels in Baton Rouge and New Orleans were supposed to hold steady near flood stage for the next 2-1/2 weeks. The Corps of Engineers opened another bay on the Morganza Spillway on Wednesday - diverting more water off the Mississippi through the bayous and rivers of the Atchafalaya Basin. The corps says it will divert as much water as necessary to keep the Mississippi no higher than 45 feet as it passes through Baton Rouge.