Areas Will Be Flooded to Protect Louisiana Cities
by Campbell Robertson
MORGAN CITY, La. — To relieve the pressure bearing down on the levees brought by a Mississippi River that has swollen to epic proportions, the Army Corps of Engineers will open the Morganza spillway, a gated structure north of Baton Rouge that would divert water from the river to protect New Orleans and other areas downriver by flooding a large area in southern Louisiana.
By protocol, the order came from the president of the Mississippi River Commission, Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, and it directed the New Orleans district commander, Col. Ed Fleming, “to be prepared to operate the Morganza Floodway within 24 hours.”
Though just about everyone in southern Louisiana had come to expect this decision and had resigned themselves to the bitter but necessary trade-off behind it, the official word ended days of uncertainty.
By design, the giant gated structure at Morganza is triggered to open, at least partly, when the Mississippi River reaches a flow rate of 1.5 million cubic feet per second at the Red River Landing, north of Baton Rouge. On Friday morning, the corps said, the flow rate at that spot was 1.45 million cubic feet per second and rising. The spillway has been opened only once before, in 1973.
The corps will conduct a “slow opening” of the spillway, and once released the water will take days to pour out into the Atchafalaya River basin, filling up marshes, engorging bayous, submerging hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and seeping into thousands of homes. It will also test the network of federally and locally built levees that wall off towns and small Cajun communities throughout the basin. The water levels in the area will remain high for weeks.
According to maps released by the corps, these areas would be flooded to some degree whether the spillway were opened or not, given the extraordinary amount of water in the system.
There are about 2,500 people in the direct path of the spillway, and around 22,500 others who would be threatened by swollen backwaters. Gov. Bobby Jindal urged people remaining in these areas to begin evacuating.
The number of gates opened at the Morganza depends on how much water would need to be diverted to keep the Mississippi below that trigger flow rate. On Friday, the corps said it would be allowing up to 150,000 cubic feet of water per second to pass through the gates, which would be a fourth of the spillway’s capacity, and less than half of what corps officials were predicting would be necessary earlier in the week.
This is welcome news, but math in the margins for those in the spillway’s path.
“While we understand the reasoning behind it, it’s still hard to accept,” said Charlene Guidry, 57, who lives on the river in the town of Butte La Rose. “It’s a no-brainer when you look at sacrificing our small community to save New Orleans and Baton Rogue. I’m not angry. I’ve resigned myself. I just hope the government steps up to the plate in a way they didn’t after Katrina.”
Here in Morgan City, a picturesque town of shrimpers and oil workers and the last big stop for the Atchafalaya before it empties into the gulf, all the talk was about river elevations and levees.
At the beginning of the month, said Tim Matte, the mayor, officials had warned that the river would rise to about eight feet, posing a minor problem for shipyards and fuel docks. Now the river was predicted to reach 12 feet, breaking a 38-year-old record, and the lake to swell to the height of some of the city’s levees.
“In 10 days we’ve gone from a minor inconvenience to a flood of historic proportions,” Mr. Matte said, minutes after being told by Senator Mary L. Landrieu’s office that the Morganza was to be opened.
Flood preparations were under way here for what officials estimate will be weeks of flood conditions: Members of the National Guard were constructing 20,000 feet of barriers to fortify and elevate levees along Lake Palourde, which sits on Morgan City’s back step. A barge was being sunk to block off a bayou, sending water out into marshland rather than into populated areas.
Thousands of sandbags were being filled in the hamlet of Stephensville, as residents were leaving for higher ground and debating where to leave their valuables, like one man’s antique gun collection.
If the levees hold, Morgan City should be fine, people here say. If the levees fail, particularly those along the Atchafalaya, the only option is a full-scale evacuation from the city. “People ask me if I have faith in these levees,” Mr. Matte said. “Well, we wouldn’t live here if we didn’t.”
Kim Severson contributed reporting from Butte La Rose, La.