Old levee breaches in Mississippi as main levee holds

VICKSBURG, Mississippi (Reuters) – The Mississippi River at Vicksburg crept to within inches of its 1927 record on Saturday, as residents anxiously watched flood waters invade their historic city.
"I've lived here all my life," said Peter Pikul, a resident, looking at water that had gone past the first floor of the old Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad Station, now a museum. "I've seen this water up and down but I've never seen it as high as it is right now."
In some Vicksburg neighborhoods, only the tops of houses could be seen Saturday afternoon.
Mississippi Delta residents are battling flood waters as the river, swollen by a rainy spring and melt from an especially snowy winter, continues to rise as it moves south. Up to 5,000 Mississippi residents have evacuated or will evacuate as the flooding spreads.
The water level at Vicksburg was 55.91 feet Saturday afternoon, just short of the record of 56.2 feet set in 1927. The river is expected to crest at Vicksburg May 19 at 57.5 feet -- 14.5 feet above flood level.
In Louisiana, the federal government opened a key spillway Saturday afternoon in a move to spare the state's two largest cities from flooding, but which will swamp thousands of homes and acres of crops.
James Phoenix, 57, a Vicksburg resident who has been staying in a Red Cross shelter since Thursday, said he intended to repair his family home once the flood waters receded, as he had when it was damaged by flooding in 1983. He grew up in the home with 12 brothers and sisters.
"It's a terrible disaster that just happened but life must go on," Phoenix said.
Upstream, an old earthen levee near Greenville, Miss. collapsed overnight, causing flood water to pool in a rural area, officials said Saturday.
The levee, about a half a mile across, was built before the historic flood of 1927, and had held through every flood since, until early Saturday morning. No injuries were reported.
"It's adding extra stress to the mainline levees, but they are holding," said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale.
Major roads and highways are closed in and around Vicksburg including a portion of U.S. Highway 61, according to the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
"It is like we are on an island surrounded by water," said Vicksburg resident Sam Holcomb.
The flooding has also driven wild animals into unexpected places, raising safety concerns.
Wild hogs and alligators were seen in residential and tourist areas in Vicksburg Friday, according to local police and witnesses.
About a dozen of the hogs climbed up out of the flood waters onto the riverbank of the city's River Front Park.
Police called the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to corral them.
"It is getting worse and worse day by day," said Ashley Rose Nevels, of Vicksburg. "Alligators, red ants, wild hogs and snakes are in such close proximity to humans. I am frightened about what will come next."
The 2011 flood continues to challenge or break records set during the floods of 1927 and 1937. Since the flood of 1927, which killed as many as 1,000 people, improvements have been made in flood control with the building of dams and levees, reservoirs and floodways.
The Bonnet Carre spillway was opened Monday, and the Corps blew up a section of the Birds Point levee in Missouri early this month, flooding farmland to save towns in Kentucky and Illinois.
With the opening of the Morganza Spillway Saturday, it is the first time that three of the river's floodways have been opened at the same time.
(Reporting by Jacob Batte and Leigh Coleman; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Tim Gaynor)

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