Officials continue to drain swollen lake; dam still holding

PIKE COUNTY — Gov. Phil Bryant and local emergency officials are meeting today to discuss the next step in dealing with a lake swollen with rain from the remnants of Isaac inside a southwest Mississippi park.

The 2,300-foot-long earthen dam — a levee on which a two-lane roadway runs — has not been breached.

Yesterday, authorities began a controlled release of water from Lake Tangipahoa while repairing two 70-foot-wide areas where mud and grass slid off after two days of Isaac’s hammering rain. Officials said the work continued overnight into early today to reduce stress on the levee.

Louisiana National Guard helicopters are placing boulders on the dam to help ensure it doesn’t fail. The Mississippi National Guard is also on the scene with bulldozers and trackhoes.

“We’ll remove some of the roadway and allow some of the pressure of the high water to simply go into the fields, lowering the threat,” Bryant said yesterday at a news conference at the lake.

Bryant said he had talked to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal about the dam. Precautions are being taken to protect residents downstream from the 700 acre lake and near the Tangipahoa River should the dam fail.

“Our immediate flood plain would help control that flow. It would not be a wall of water moving toward Tangipahoa parish in Louisiana. As it moved under the bridge, it would then dissipate within the low lying areas that we have designed in Mississippi,” said Bryant.

About 20 nearby homeowners were strongly advised to leave until the controlled breech was completed sometime Sunday. Pike County officials said some residents did leave their homes.

Ramie Ford, director of Mississippi state parks, said the plan was to slowly let about eight feet of water out of a lake that is three to four feet higher than normal, reducing stress on the levee.

“The water flow will be controlled by us and not Mother Nature. So no one should be in harm’s way,” Ford said.

Preliminary models indicated that a successful controlled release would not significantly affect water levels in Louisiana, Jindal said. Even so, he and parish president Gordon Burgess strongly encouraged Louisiana residents near the structure to heed warnings to evacuate. They ordered the immediate evacuation of Kentwood, a town of about 2,200, after flying over Tangipahoa Parish.

Burgess earlier had asked residents in mostly rural areas along the river, from Kentwood south to Robert, to voluntarily leave because of uncertainties about the dam. The evacuation order did not include the parish’s major city, Hammond, which has about 20,000 people and is home to Southeastern Louisiana University.

It will be a few days before evacuees can return, Jindal said. If the dam broke, he said, it could cause a 17-foot crest on the river that would threaten 40,000 to 60,000 people in the parish with flooding. Water levels would be like those in the record flood of 1983, which was caused by a disruption in the flood plain from bridge construction on Interstate 12 and flooded hundreds of homes in and around Robert., La.

“This would be a significant, significant flooding event for Tangipahoa Parish,” Jindal said.

Iris Renee Brown was on the verge of tears as she waited for information at a small cafe in Robert. She lost her home when the town flooded in 1983 and her yard was already covered in a foot of water when she left Thursday.

Brown said she barely had time to pack some clothing before gathering up her family and heading north. “It was devastating in ’83. You rebuild, you know?” she said. “Give us a break.”

Jindal said data from preliminary inundation maps indicate at least a half-mile area on either side of the Tangipahoa River could flood if the dam fails. Parish officials said a flyover of the area indicated a much larger area would be affected than they initially anticipated.

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