VICKSBURG, Miss. — In the area of Mississippi hardest-hit by river flooding, evacuees passed time in shelters Wednesday by reading books, praying or smoking cigarettes as officials warily watched waters inch toward the top of a nearby levee that protects thousands of acres of farmland. Cargo was slowly moving along the bloated Mississippi River after a costly daylong standstill.
Some of the worst flooding in Mississippi has been in the Vicksburg area, where people have been living in shelters for nearly two weeks. It's anyone's guess when they'll be able to return to what's left of their homes. The river is expected to crest there Thursday, but the governor said it could take until late June for water to retreat in certain places.
"Lord only knows when it's going to recede. It's so much water," said evacuee Steven Coles, who's staying at a Vicksburg church being used as shelter for Red Cross victims.
Barge traffic on the river had resumed after the Coast Guard closed a 15-mile stretch at Natchez, Miss. for much of Tuesday, blocking vessels heading toward the Gulf of Mexico and others trying to return north after dropping off their freight.
Such interruptions could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars for each day the barges are idled, as the toll from the weeks of flooding from Arkansas to Louisiana continues to mount.
Barges that haul coal, timber, iron, steel and more than half of America's grain exports were allowed to pass at the slowest possible speed because their wakes could increase the strain on levees designed to hold back the river, officials said.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Moland said tests indicated sandbagging and other measures to protect most of the area could withstand the wakes if the vessels were ordered to move through at the slowest possible speed. It's not clear how long barges would only be able to move one at a time.
In Vidalia, La., across the river from Natchez, Carla Jenkins was near tears as she watched the first tows and barges move north after the reopening.
"The water from the wakes just keeps coming into our buildings. We're going to have a lot more damage," said Jenkins, who owns Vidalia Dock and Storage.
The closure at Natchez was the third in a series of recent moves designed to protect homes and businesses behind levees and floodwalls along the river.
Over the weekend, the Army Corps opened the Morganza Spillway, choosing to flood rural areas with fewer homes to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Another spillway near New Orleans was opened earlier, but it did not threaten homes.
The hardest-hit part of Mississippi is the area from Vicksburg northeast to Yazoo City, along the Yazoo River. The Yazoo Backwater Levee north of Vicksburg connects with the main Mississippi River levee. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials had predicted that at least a foot of water could pour over the top, flooding tens of thousands of acres of farmland in the Delta.
The corps brought in new gauges and did another analysis and now believes the levee will only be overtopped by inches, if at all, agency spokesman Wayne Stroupe said.
But he said: "It's going to be very close."
If the levee overtops, it likely will be when the gauges at Vicksburg reach 57.2 or 57.3 feet. The Mississippi River is projected to crest Thursday there at 57.5 feet, more than a foot above the 1927 record.
But after the crest, it could be days before the water starts going down, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Wednesday morning on CBS' "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.
Vivian Taylor, a 60-year-old substitute teacher, described a sense of denial for many residents of her neighborhood in south Vicksburg before the flooding got bad.
"We thought maybe it wouldn't get that bad," she said. "When we saw water starting to build up in fields behind the neighborhood we started to get worried. Then we started seeing snakes and worms coming up out of the ground and we became very concerned."
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said there are more than 4,800 people displaced in Mississippi due to flooding, with more than 2,000 of them in Vicksburg and surrounding areas in Warren County. MEMA Spokesman Jeff Rent said more than 6,000 people in Mississippi could be displaced before the flood is over.
Taylor-Wells spends her time swapping stories with the others staying at the Red Cross shelter at Hawkins United Methodist Church. She thinks a lot about what's ahead. There's not much else to do.
"I pray. I read. I meditate," she said. "I just try to sit calm and get my bearings," she said.
Outside the shelter Wednesday morning, Anita Raley stood barefoot and wearing pajamas while she smoked a cigarette.
The 43-year-old woman has been here going on two weeks since water flooded her home.
"I'm really just kind of numb," she said. "I guess it really hasn't hit me yet."
Her life for now is mostly waiting for the water to go down.
"We have to take it day by day. We just have to start over," she said.
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