U.S. authorities are preparing to open a massive spillway in the southern state of Louisiana to divert Mississippi River floods away from the population centers of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The 32-kilometer-long Morganza Spillway would divert a portion of the severely flooded Mississippi River away from Louisiana's two big cities, but create huge new floods in a more rural part of the state. Governor Bobby Jindal says the Army Corps of Engineers expects that opening the channel would affect 25,000 people, most of them living in areas adjacent to the spillway likely to become flooded.
U.S. officials say the Louisiana floods could cover up to 1.2 million hectares, much of it rich farmland, with at least 150 centimeters of water, and possibly as much as six meters.
Flood of the century
The rising waters, now known in parts of the American south as the "flood of the century," already have caused vast damage upstream to homes, crops and businesses. The U.S. insurance industry says that seasonal natural disasters this year - both the flooding and last month's devastating tornadoes - have already cost $5 billion in damages.
Jindal says his state will do everything it can to protect people and property in the flood zone.
In the adjacent state of Mississippi, rising waters are threatening to swamp ponds used for catfish farming, a $200 million-a-year industry, and inundate cotton fields.
For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the decision on whether to open the Morganza Spillway is one of choosing which part of the state will flood - the heavily populated cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, or rich farmlands elsewhere in the state. The Morganza Spillway, a channel that can divert Mississippi water to another river system, has been used only once before, in 1973.
New Orleans is still recovering from devastation it sustained from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many sections of the city have not been rebuilt, and thousands of its residents who left have not returned.
The Red Cross says it has ample shelters to accommodate residents displaced by the flooding. They could be out of their homes for several weeks until the water recedes.
President Barack Obama has set a visit to the flood zone on Monday. He will tour Tennessee's largest city, Memphis, where the Mississippi River crested at near record levels earlier this week.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.