05/20/2011 02:59 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2011

Mississippi River Flooding: In The Crosshairs, A Bayou Community Waits

BUTTE LA ROSE, LA. –- The evening chorus of bullfrogs, crickets and screech owls along the waterfront has seemed louder these last few nights.

The homes are empty. The music and chatter from neighbors has disappeared. The electricity is almost entirely switched off, plunging the remaining holdouts of this hideaway community into pitch-black nights illuminated only by the moon and stars.

In the heart of the nation’s largest swamp, Butte La Rose lies in the direct path of floodwaters unleashed last Saturday from the Morganza Floodway, an effort to divert the Mississippi River’s force away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
But before the water rises here, it must spread out over hundreds of square miles of cypress swamps and bottomlands.

The people of Louisiana have become attuned to disasters over the years, yet the slow creep of rising water through this untamed region has even the hardiest natives on edge.

"Growing up down here, you become acclimated to hurricanes. It’s fast-moving," said full-time resident Michelle McInnis, a native of Hackberry, La., a town walloped by Hurricane Rita more than five years ago. "It’s mentally anguishing, this slow rise of the water … and knowing you can’t come back for six weeks."

A surprising number of full-time residents live in this Atchafalaya Basin town, a collection of both dowdy trailer homes and million-dollar fishing retreats with names like "Bar-B-Que and Drink a Few" and "Dad’s Pad When Mom’s Mad."

There are two ways in to Butte La Rose: a ramp down from Interstate 10 and a floating bridge. By Saturday, the bridge will be off limits, leaving only one entrance. The handful of stores and bars close one by one.

Local sheriff deputies in Army National Guard Humvees constantly patrol the area, making daily rounds to warn anyone left that a mandatory evacuation remains in effect.

The daily checkups have become a sort of joke for Randy Moncrief. He’s vowed to watch over "Timbuktu," the two-story red waterfront home owned by his father, until he either runs out of food or can no longer tolerate bathing in the canal behind the house.

"Cleanliness is gonna drive me out, if anything," Moncrief said. "I’ve got plenty of shotguns. I’ll kill me a rabbit, a gator, a deer, whatever."

Before it comes to that, Moncrief has stocked up freezers and coolers with nearly ten pounds of red beans and rice with sausage, a full frozen brisket, 20 pounds of shrimp and loads of deer sausage.

He’s not sure exactly what he’ll do for the next three or four weeks. "It’ll be some long days," he admitted. His truck is gone, left on higher ground. He has a four-wheeler to traverse high water, if needed.

Randy Moncrief on his porch

Moncrief is a product of the Atchafalaya Basin, a wild region of swamplands and marshes west of the Mississippi River. His grandparents trapped nutria and muskrat for years at a "camp" in the middle of the swamp, accessible only by shallow-draft boats.

He said he’s used to being surrounded by water. But in recent days, nature has started to rear its head.

Snakes appear in greater abundance, along with alligators. Moncrief was tending to a plant in the backyard three days ago when a snake bit his hand. Shining a flashlight on the canal behind his house at night reveals numerous pairs of red alligator eyes lurking in the waters.

Moncrief is one of only a handful of people in Butte La Rose planning to ride out the flood. Most escaped in a frenzy last weekend when the Army Corps of Engineers opened the floodway at Morganza.

Last Saturday and Sunday, the two-lane road leading out of town was backed up for hours, jammed with a long procession of trucks and trailers hauling everything out. Some hired contractors at the last minute to jack up their houses, an attempt to buy another few feet.

Many left signs tacked to their homes, staking out their territory. One read, "Nothing left worth stealing."

The mood this week has been much calmer. McInnis and her boyfriend have been packing up their belongings slowly. She marks the calendar each morning with the new flood heights. It began May 3 at 15.5; the water now sits at 20.94. Within a week it’s expected to rise another five feet.

On Friday, the couple headed out of town to stay with relatives. They shut the power off behind them, not knowing when they would return.

"You have to respect Mother Nature 100 percent," McInnis said. "You can’t think that you’re going to go against her and win. Because you will not."