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Hundreds flee as flood fills poverty-stricken Miss. Delta

City workers in Vicksburg, Miss., transported a load of sandbags by boat yesterday. They were to be used in reinforcing a levee gate past the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad Station. City workers in Vicksburg, Miss., transported a load of sandbags by boat yesterday. They were to be used in reinforcing a levee gate past the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad Station. (Scott Olson/ Getty Images)
By Sheila Byrd and Holbrook Mohr
Associated Press / May 12, 2011

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RENA LARA, Miss. — Flood waters from the bloated Mississippi River and its tributaries spilled across farm fields, cut off churches, washed over roads, and forced people from their homes yesterday in the Mississippi Delta, a poverty-stricken region only a generation or two removed from sharecropping days.

People used boats to navigate flooded streets as the crest rolled slowly downstream, bringing misery to poor, low-lying communities. Hundreds have left their homes in the Delta in the past several days as the water rose toward some of the highest levels on record.

The flood crest is expected to push all the way through the Delta by late next week.

“It’s getting scary,’’ said Rita Harris, 43, who lives in a tiny wooden house in the shadow of the levee in the Delta town of Rena Lara, population 500. “They won’t let you go up there to look at the water.’’

Officials in the town, which has no local newspaper or TV stations, tried to reassure residents that they are doing what they can to shore up the levee and that they will warn people if they need to leave.

Governor Haley Barbour urged people to get out if they think there is even a chance their homes will flood. He said there is no reason to believe a levee on the Yazoo River would fail, but if it did, 107 feet of water would flow over small towns.

“More than anything else, save your life and don’t put at risk other people who might have to come in and save your lives,’’ Barbour said.

The Mississippi Delta, with a population of about 465,000, is a leaf-shaped expanse of rich soil between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, extending about 200 miles from Memphis, Tenn., to Vicksburg, Miss. Along the way are towns whose names are familiar to Civil War buffs, aficionados of the blues, and scholars of the civil rights era: Clarksdale, Greenwood, Greenville, and Yazoo City.

While some farms in the cotton-, rice- and corn-growing Delta are prosperous, there is also grinding poverty. Nine of the 11 counties that touch the Mississippi River in Mississippi have poverty rates at least double the national average of 13.5 percent, according to the US Census Bureau.

The governor said the state is asking local officials to get in touch with people who might have no electricity and phones and thus no way to get word of the flooding.

“It’s a tiny number, but we have to find them,’’ Barbour said.

In Greenville, Liz Jones, who is unemployed, lives on the second floor of a housing project and worries what might happen in the event of a levee break. She has no means of transportation.

“I got a baby and my mama,’’ she said. “I don’t know what we’d do about food and clothes and stuff.’’

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