Too Much Water: Army Corps Will Deluge the Bayou to Save the Big Easy

  • Share
  • Read Later
Patrick Semansky / AP

A Black Hawk helicopter carrying Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal flies over the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana on Thursday, May 12, 2011, during a tour of areas that could be affected by flooding if the Morganza Spillway, north of Baton Rouge, is opened

It rained on southern Louisiana Thursday night, May 12 — and that made fears along the lower Mississippi River rise as high as the Big Muddy's already dangerously swollen levels. The Mississippi grew to 43.4 ft., almost 20 ft. above its normal mark at Louisiana's capital, Baton Rouge, and even more rain is forecast for today. Heading into the weekend, state officials are faced with an ugly reality: the river keeps rising even though they've opened more than half the bays on a spillway that diverts raging floodwaters around the city of New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico. More floodgates, as a result, have to be opened.

By Saturday, in fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to partially open the Morganza Spillway, northwest of Baton Rouge, for the first time since the storied 1973 floods. On Friday, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said the Army Corps told him the Mississippi is flowing at close to 1.5 million cu. ft. per sec., the official benchmark for opening the spillway. Once the Morganza is uncorked, it will send excess river water south through the Atchafalaya Swamp and into the Gulf — and, officials hope, alleviate some of the pressure on levees protecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The decision came with a catch-22: if the Army Corps decided not to open the Morganza, it ran the risk of sending a catastrophic 20 to 40 ft. of water into New Orleans, where memories of Hurricane Katrina — which drowned the Crescent City in 2005 — are still fresh. Instead, it will open the spillway and send 150,000 cu. ft. of water per sec. racing into a swamp west of New Orleans, sparing the Big Easy but inundating at least 3,000 people in the outlying fishing and farming communities of the Louisiana bayou. On Friday, Jindal advised residents there that "now is the time to get out of harm's way."

Among the communities at risk is Morgan City (pop. 12,708), a town southwest of New Orleans. Mayor Tim Matte says his city has done all it can to shore up its levees, but there is a sense of dread about what might happen if there is a breach. Home to fuel docks and shipyards, shrimpers and oilmen, Morgan City is the last stop for any river water that flows down the Morganza floodway. "We live with that reality," Matte says. Some projections have Morgan City getting as much as 15 ft. of water once the Morganza is opened.

Meanwhile, the mayors of the much larger cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans worked to calm nervous residents, telling them they need not worry about the floods. But with those reassurances came what Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden called an "X factor." Says Holden: "If there is a breach in the levee, we're going to have some problems." And the levees are still a sensitive issue. In Baton Rouge — where officials say the river could reach 47.5 ft. by May 22, breaking the 1927 record of 47.28 ft. — the city built up a two-mile section of levee with 4-ft.-high orange tubing and ordered residents to stay off the levees for the time being. Still, on Thursday evening, water clearly seeped onto the grounds of chemical plants along the Mississippi River. In New Orleans, where water levels sit about 3 ft. under the flood wall, officials pondered whether to shut down ship traffic between Baton Rouge and the Gulf.

And yet, strangely, a rare piece of good news emerged in New Orleans: the river level late this week started dropping there inch by inch. "Lowest it's been in a while," tweeted local meteorologist Margaret Orr. "16.87' at New Orleans. The bay openings in the Bonnet Carré [Spillway] making a difference!" But small victories like this come at a price. In the coming days, it will become evident just what sort of flood bath small towns like Morgan City will have to take so the Big Easy and Baton Rouge can inch toward a dry triumph in their battle with a raging river.