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Floodgates opened in bid to save New Orleans

Deputies were warning people on Sunday to evacuate their homes 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 has not been so much as a trickle, hopeful that the flooding engineered to protect New Orleans and Baton Rouge would not destroy their homes.

By Sunday, some areas were virtually 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 six metres in the coming weeks, though levels are 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.

About 11 miles north of Krotz Springs in the town of Melville, water was already starting to creep into some people’s backyards. Parts of the town not protected by levees were under a mandatory evacuation order.

Krotz Springs is roughly 48km closer to the floodgates, and deputies ordered people to evacuate Sunday morning even though the water had not yet arrived.

It will be at least a week before the Mississippi River crest arrives at the Morganza spillway, where officials opened two massive gates on Saturday and another two Sunday. There are 125 in all. The Mississippi has broken river-level records that had held since the 1920s in some places.

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.

The Morganza flooding is more controlled, however, and residents are warned each year that the spillway could be opened. A spillway at the 2,230m Bonnet Carre structure in Louisiana also has been opened.

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