Cajuns told to leave home, but some hold out hope

HENDERSON, Louisiana - Army Corps of Engineers workers opened more floodgates at the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana Sunday, just upriver from New Orleans, bringing the total to four.

They're diverting millions of gallons per minute into the Atchafalaya Basin, sparing New Orleans while flooding thousands of square miles of Cajun country.

CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds reports that this is the moment of truth for a lot of folks in low lying areas around the basin. Officials say it's time to go, but for the people of Cajun country, it's not that simple.

In Butte La Rose, Randy Moncrief had one eye on the grill and the other on the water lapping at his dad's home.

"Everybody's gone. It's gonna be like a ghost town around here in the next day or two," Moncrief said.

Moncrief, a retired tugboat operator, expects the second floor of the home to stay dry, but that's all.

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Down the street at a cabin named "Last Dance," Pierre Watermeyer wrapped the building in plastic, ringed it with sandbags, and hoped for the best.

"I'm hoping. I'm really hoping it's going to prevent it from being ruined," Watermeyer said.

Butte La Rose is one of the scattered Cajun communities in the Atchafalaya River Basin, an area of farm fields, fishing camps and free spirits, where water from the Morganza Spillway is now running, diverted from the Mississippi.

The diversion is supposed to lessen river pressure at the Baton Rouge and New Orleans flood walls. Unfortunately, to make that happen, communities like Butte La Rose may go under.

Four gates are open now at the spillway. Just one releases nearly 75,000 gallons per second, 4.5 million gallons per minute, a rate that would fill an Olympic-sized pool in nine seconds.

Downstream, St. Landry Parish issued a mandatory evacuation order: everyone out by Sunday afternoon.

"We are anticipating seeing some water in this area around 9 p.m. this evening," said Donald Menard, St. Landry Parish president on Sunday.

In Butte La Rose, Randy Moncrief says they can issue all the evacuation orders they want. He's spent months remodeling this home, and has no intention of leaving it. But he's keeping a boat handy, just in case.

The people of Cajun country are refusing to leave for two reasons: One is emotional, and the other is skepticism - they just don't believe the Army Corps when officials say the water will ruin their homes.

It will be at least a week before the Mississippi River crest arrives at the Morganza Spillway. The Mississippi has broken river-level records that had held since the 1920s in some places.

Louisiana flooding map
Map of the flooding in Louisiana
CBS News

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 (520 square kilometers) of farmland and damaging or destroying about 100 homes -- to take the pressure off floodwalls protecting the town of Cairo, Illinois, 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 7,000-foot Bonnet Carre structure in Louisiana also has been opened.

It seemed animals didn't want to be stuck anywhere, either: Deer, hogs and rabbits have started running from the water flowing near the floodgates, said Lt. Col. Joey Broussard of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. An electronic sign on Interstate 10 warned of a possible animal exodus: "Wildlife crossing possible. Use caution," it read.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.

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