By MARY FOSTER and HOLBROOK MOHR
LAKE PROVIDENCE, La. - In an agonizing trade-off, Army engineers said they will open a key spillway along the bulging Mississippi River as early as today and inundate thousands of homes and farms in parts of Louisiana's Cajun country to avert a potentially bigger disaster in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
About 25,000 people and 11,000 structures could be in harm's way when the gates on the Morganza spillway are unlocked for the first time in 38 years.
"Protecting lives is the No. 1 priority," Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said aboard a boat from the river at Vicksburg, Miss., hours before the decision was made to open the spillway.
The opening will release a torrent that could submerge about 3,000 square miles under as much as 25 feet of water in some areas but take the pressure off the downstream levees protecting New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the numerous oil refineries and chemical plants along the lower reaches of the Mississippi.
Engineers feared that weeks of pressure on the levees could cause them to fail, swamping New Orleans under as much as 20 feet of water in a disaster that would have been much worse than Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Instead, the water will flow 20 miles south into the Atchafalaya Basin. From there it will roll on to Morgan City, an oil-and-seafood hub and a community of 12,000, and then eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, flooding swamps and croplands.
The corps said it will open the gates when the river's flow rate reaches 1.5 million cubic feet per second and is predicted to keep rising, which is expected sometime today. But some people living in the threatened stretch of countryside - an area known for small farms, fish camps and a drawling French dialect - have already started fleeing for higher ground.
Sheriffs and National Guardsmen will warn people in a door-to-door sweep through the area, Gov. Bobby Jindal said. Shelters are ready to accept up to 4,800 evacuees, the governor said.
"Now's the time to evacuate," Jindal said. "Now's the time for our people to execute their plans. That water's coming."
The Army Corps of Engineers employed a similar cities-first strategy earlier this month when it 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 the levees protecting the town of Cairo, Ill., population 2,800.
This intentional flood is more controlled, however, and residents are warned by the corps each year in written letters, reminding them of the possibility of opening the spillway.
Meanwhile, with crop prices soaring, farmers along the lower Mississippi had been expecting a big year. But now many are facing ruin, with floodwaters swallowing up corn, cotton, rice and soybean fields.
In far northeastern Louisiana, where Tap Parker and about 50 other farmers filled and stacked massive sandbags along an old levee to no avail. The Mississippi flowed over the top Thursday, and nearly 19 square miles of soybeans and corn, known in the industry as "green gold," was lost.
"This was supposed to be our good year. We had a chance to really catch up. Now we're scrambling to break even," said Parker, who has been farming since 1985.
Cotton prices are up 86 percent from a year ago, and corn - which is feed for livestock, a major ingredient in cereals and soft drinks, and the raw material used to produce ethanol - is up 80 percent. Soybeans have risen 39 percent. The increase is attributed, in part, to worldwide demand, crop-damaging weather elsewhere and rising production of ethanol.
While the Mississippi River flooding has not had any immediate impact on prices in the supermarket, the long-term effects are still unknown. A full damage assessment can't be made until the water has receded in many places.
Some of the estimates have been dire, though.
More than 1,500 square miles of farmland in Arkansas, which produces about half of the nation's rice, have been swamped over the past few weeks. In Missouri, where a levee was intentionally blown open to ease the flood threat in the town of Cairo, Ill., more than 200 square miles of croplands were submerged, damage that will probably exceed $100 million. More than 2,100 square miles could flood in Mississippi.
When the water level goes down - and that could take many weeks in some places - farmers can expect to find the soil washed away or their fields covered with sand. Some will probably replant on the soggy soil, but they will be behind their normal growing schedule, which could hurt yields.
Many farmers have crop insurance, but it won't be enough to cover their losses. And it won't even come close to what they could have expected with a bumper crop.
"I might get enough money from insurance to take us to a movie, but it better be dollar night," said Karsten Simrall, who lives in Redwood, Miss.
Simrall's family has farmed the low-lying fields in Redwood for five generations and has been fighting floods for years, but it's never been this bad. And the river is not expected to crest here until around Tuesday.
"How the hell do you recoup all these losses?" he said. "You just wait. It's in God's hands."
The river's rise may also force the closing of the river to shipping, from Baton Rouge to the mouth of the Mississippi, as early as next week. That would cause grain barges from the heartland to stack up along with other commodities.
If the portion is closed, the U.S. economy could lose hundreds of millions of dollars a day. In 2008, a 100-mile stretch of the river was closed for six days after a tugboat collided with a tanker, spilling about 500,000 gallons of fuel. The Port of New Orleans estimated the shutdown cost the economy up to $275 million a day.
Mohr reported from Redwood, Miss. AP Agribusiness Writer Christopher Leonard contributed to this report.