CUTOFF, Miss. – Javier Campos returned to his neighborhood for the first time in nearly a month Monday to find the serene little enclave of fishing camps and homes a putrid, mud-caked mess after the historic flooding of the Mississippi River.
"It's too late for praying now," he said, stomping through the sludge.
Like Campos, many residents got their first glimpse Monday of what's left of Cutoff, an unincorporated community on the unprotected side of the river in Mississippi's Tunica County.
Authorities had already used machinery to remove dead deer and propane tanks from roads, but a thick layer of mud coated piles of debris and almost everything else in sight. Some of the houses, most built on stilts on the banks of Tunica Lake, had been flooded nearly to their attics. Only five out of 350 structures didn't flood.
The tally of the damage continues here, but at least a dozen houses are a total loss, and maybe more, with one left laying on its side.
Inspectors let some residents return home over the weekend, but most were seeing the destruction Monday for the first time.
Campos, a 32-year-old handyman, still couldn't quite get to his own home. So he pulled on a pair of gloves and started helping a neighbor salvage what he could.
"It's terrible, man. Everybody needs help," Campos said. "So I'm helping my neighbors, and when I can get back to my house, maybe they will help me."
Despite the devastation, Tunica County Planning Director Pepper Bradford said opening the last sections of the community Monday was a milestone for the roughly 225 households that are permanent residences in a series of fishing camps.
But, he said, danger is lurking.
"My building inspectors are packing heat," Bradford said. "And they have shot some snakes."
The Mississippi River displaced thousands on its march to the sea, despite dramatic action to stem the losses. The rising waters led the Army Corps of Engineers to blow up a Missouri levee to save Midwest communities and open spillways in Louisiana to lessen the risk in heavily populated places like New Orleans.
Places like Cutoff may never be the same. The community sprang from fishing camps that date back decades. It was a place where each of the four camps had a bar and grill, and most people traveled on golf carts. Most of the homes here had been built before new federal and county regulations. If they are substantially damaged, they'll have to be elevated, which will cost too much for many residents.
"I don't know if I can save it," said 47-year-old Diane Austin, who spent Monday wearing yellow rubber gloves and a surgical mask while dragging soiled furniture from her home.
"When I first saw it, I thought, 'Yeah, it's bad.' Now that I'm taking stuff out, it's worse," she said.
Scenes like this could play out repeatedly in the coming weeks. Water from the river is expected to remain high into the summer in some places, including downriver in Vicksburg, Miss., where hundreds of people are still displaced.
"It humbles you," said 68-year-old Robert Ivy, a retired truck driver who has lived for about 3 years in Cutoff.
"When you walk in and see all that, you really don't know how in the world you are going to get through it," he said.
The flood also devastated thousands of acres of farmland in Mississippi and Louisiana, and it isn't over yet. The Atchafalaya River in southern Louisiana, overflowing with Mississippi water diverted through the Morganza spillway, was expected to crest Monday at Morgan City. It will be the final place along the Mississippi River system to get the highest water.
Meanwhile, an environmental crisis could be on the horizon in southern Louisiana. The fresh water rolling into the Gulf of Mexico could pose a serious setback for the badly damaged oyster industry, struggling to recover from last year's BP oil spill. Too much fresh water can kill oysters.
"The worst is not over yet," said John Tesvich, the chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, an industry group. "We're starting to see fresh water in various areas. The next couple of weeks will be critical."
The floodwaters have been the highest on record at more than half of the gauges along the fortress-like levee system built up between Missouri and Louisiana. Sandbags and emergency barriers have been placed around towns, at gaps in the levee system, and around businesses, power facilities and other critical infrastructure.
So far, the Army Corps of Engineers is confident its flood system will hold up. And it's performed well so far, though crews up and down the river have had to chase sand boils — where water undercuts the levee and land on the other side seems to boil.
There will be a lot to watch over the coming weeks. Engineers say levees are weakened when floodwaters recede and erode the earthen ramparts. Also, there is the possibility for water levels to rise again as more storms dump water into the Mississippi River valley.
At the southern end of the Atchafalaya River, there was a guarded sense of relief last week as the corps began closing bays at the Morganza spillway, source of the water threatening Morgan City, an oil and seafood town of about 10,000 people.
The Atchafalaya's expected crest Monday was forecast to reach levels not seen since the landmark 1973 flooding in the Mississippi Valley. Morgan City was on guard as the crest approached.
Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte said the 24-foot floodwall protecting the city was doing its job. The larger fear, he said, was the possible overtopping of levees at Lake Palourde as a result of backwater flooding.
"Within a day or so of (the cresting) you'd pretty well be convinced, OK, we're not going to have an overtopping. Now, all we need to do is make sure our levees are in good shape," he said.
The American Waterways Operators, which represents the U.S. barge industry, said conditions are slowly returning to normal on the Mississippi. However, traffic restrictions, including the number of barges that can be towed at once, remain in effect, said AWO spokeswoman Anne Burns. Most of the backup has cleared, but traffic is still moving slowly to ensure the levees aren't damaged, she said.
Barges haul grain and other farm products from the Midwest to the Port of South Louisiana, where they are loaded on ocean-going vessels for exports or stored in grain elevators to await shipping.
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