NEW ORLEANS — Some barges were allowed to pass Monday through a stretch of the Mississippi River that had been closed since three of the vessels sank late last week amid high water and fast currents.
The river's fickle flooding was also testing the patience of residents from its namesake state to rural Cajun country. Some in Louisiana were allowed to return home after being driven away by the threat of rising water, while others faced a new deadline for evacuating. In Mississippi areas where floodwaters were receding, inspectors evaluated damage to homes as frustrated residents waited to see for themselves what was left behind.
Companies that use the country's busiest inland waterway to ship grain and other products received good news when the Coast Guard allowed northbound vessels to begin passing through Baton Rouge one at a time Monday. Petty Officer Stephen Lehmann said southbound vessels will be allowed to travel down the river once the northbound backup is cleared, but he didn't offer a timeframe.
"It would depend on a lot of different things," he said, adding that the Coast Guard is still reviewing a plan to remove the three barges that sank Friday.
The vessels, owned by Archer Daniels Midland Co., were part of a 20-barge tow that was being pushed downriver amid difficult navigation conditions. One of the barges struck a dock. Two struck a bridge.
Many barges waiting to proceed south are carrying grain from farms in the Midwest to the Port of South Louisiana, located on both sides of the river north of New Orleans. It's the nation's largest port in terms of tonnage, and it handles more than half of American grain exports.
That kind of commercial traffic means closing the river is costly. Although port officials couldn't put a dollar figure on the closure at Baton Rouge, the total cost of a more extensive shutdown from Baton Rouge to where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico can top $300 million a day. Still, Mitch Smith, the port's director of operations, said the closing hadn't resulted in any "drastic changes" in the port's operations.
Hundreds in Louisiana had left homes threatened by the opening of a key floodway that's diverting water from the Mississippi River to protect more heavily populated cities downriver. By Monday, the threat appeared to have diminished for some neighborhoods, while another community several miles to the south was still waiting to see how bad the flooding could get.
A mandatory evacuation order was lifted Monday for St. Landry Parish, including in the Krotz Springs and Melville areas. Parish President Don Menard said new forecasts indicate that there won't be extensive damage from rising water. By contrast, residents to the south in the St. Martin Parish community of Butte LaRose were told they must be out of their homes by noon Tuesday as floodwaters spread closer to buildings there. Most residents have been gone for days.
Krotz Springs Mayor Carroll Snyder said some residents already were returning home before the lifting of the mandatory evacuation order, which had been in place since May 15.
"We may still see some flooding, but it's not going to be as drastic as what the corps said," he added. "People can only run for so long. They ran out of money."
Sheree Sanders, 39, her husband and their two children had heeded the mandatory evacuation but returned home Saturday to their home near Krotz Springs. They are keeping their bags packed just in case.
The parish president "may have jumped the gun, but his job is to protect us," she said. "It cost people a lot of money."
Sanders runs a tanning salon out of a metal building on her property. She hauled that structure out of the evacuation zone and moved it back on Saturday, but many of her regular customers have left town.
"I'm not angry about it by any means, but I'm frustrated with the lost wages," she said.
Menard said Monday that he stood by his decision to order people to evacuate more than a week ago, adding that it was based on Army Corps of Engineers flood projections.
"We just wanted to be sure everyone would be safe and sound," he said.
Upstream in Mississippi, tension grows every day for Howard Scott, a 47-year-old contractor who has been in a shelter for nearly a month since his Tunica County house flooded.
Officials began inspecting flooded properties on Monday, but that's just the first step in a process that could take a week.
County spokesman Larry Liddell said county inspectors will spend several days checking houses in the Cutoff community to see if they are structurally sound. If a home is structurally safe, the homeowner can schedule a visit next week with an inspector for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Scott says bureaucracy is slowing things down.
"They're talking about closing the shelter this week and I haven't gotten any assistance yet so I don't know what I'm going to do," Scott said. "I think the inspections are slowing things down. I mean, you can tell if a place is safe. You shouldn't have to make an appointment."
Tunica officials say they just want to make sure people are safe when they return home to start cleaning up the mess and rebuilding their lives. But that's little comfort for people who have been sleeping on cots in a shelter and are ready to have their lives back.
"The only privacy you have in here is between your ears," Scott said.