NEW ORLEANS — Along the swollen Mississippi River, hundreds of thousands of lives depend on a small army of engineers, deputies and even prison inmates keeping round-the-clock watch at the many floodwalls and earthen levees holding the water back.
They are looking for any droplets that seep through the barriers and any cracks that threaten to turn small leaks into big problems.
To take pressure off levees near Baton Rouge and New Orleans, engineers have opened two major spillways. After water was released over the weekend at the Morganza spillway near Baton Rouge, deputies and National Guardsmen fanned out to warn residents in its path, most of whom have heeded the call to seek higher ground.
Bernadine Turner, who lives in a mandatory evacuation zone near Krotz Springs, spent a third day Monday moving her things out.
"We don't have flood insurance, and most people here don't. Man, it would be hard to start all over," she said.
Snow melt and rain have sent a relentless torrent of water down the Mississippi this spring.
On Monday, President Obama flew to Memphis, Tenn., to comfort families affected when the river rose last week to within inches of the record set in 1937. Some low-lying neighborhoods were inundated, but levees protected much of the rest.
Downriver in Mississippi and Louisiana, the crews keeping watch on floodwalls and levees included those from the Army Corps of Engineers, various local levee districts, county sheriffs, municipal police forces and private security details.
Reynold Minsky, president of a north Louisiana levee district, said there are some places where he will not ask anyone to go after sundown because of snakes and alligators. "That's inhumane," he said.
In New Orleans, the wharves that form much of the city's boundary with the river provide one line of defense. If for any reason they are topped by floodwaters, concrete floodwalls and huge metal gates can also be closed.
The river levees at New Orleans — which are not among those that failed along canals after Hurricane Katrina — have survived high water before and will survive this latest test, city officials said.