Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Pig Coming Down the Python

As anyone watching the news knows, the Mississippi River is flooding. Badly. Those of us sitting down here at the mouth of Old Man River can only watch as the crest of high water rolls relentlessly towards us.

The flood is expected to hit the river at New Orleans on May 21, cresting on May 22 at 17.5 feet. (Update: They are now projecting a crest of 19.5 on May 23rd.) The levees along the river are built to take a 20-foot flood. Am I uncomfortable? Uh, yes; although thanks to protective measures taken after past river rampages, I know we are in a much more secure position than many upriver or even in other parts of Louisiana. I saw yesterday that the state has started evacuating prisoners from Angola, which is at St. Francisville, just above Baton Rouge. At the same time, Baton Rouge is borrowing thousands of sandbags from St. Charles Parish, although St. Charles made them promise to give them back before hurricane season. (Cue sick laugh here.)

The ironic thing about all this? We’re in a drought. All the storms sweeping through the South have gone north of New Orleans, so that we’ve had endless high winds but no rain since early April. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I look at the devastation caused by those storms in the other states around us and my heart aches for those effected.

The last truly devastating flooding of the Mississippi at New Orleans took place way back in 1927. Since then, the huge Bonnet CarrĂ© Spillway has been constructed. The Bonnet CarrĂ© (gloriously mispronounced by locals as the "Bonnie Carrie") is basically a 1 ½ mile mechanically controlled weir that runs along the Mississippi a few miles north of my house. When the river starts getting high, the Corps opens the spillway gates and diverts some of the floodwaters into a 7,600 acre floodway that runs for six miles to Lake Pontchartrain. It’s been opened nine times so far, the first time being in 1937, the last in 2008. In 2008, they only opened 160 of the spillway’s bays, although all 350 have been opened in the past.


Word is the spillway may be opened as early as Monday. Already, water has started seeping through the bays and roads in the area are closed.


In the meantime, all we can do is wait, and watch.

Update:The state is likely to also open the Morganza Spillway north of Baton Rouge. This spillway is connected to the Old River Control Complex that keeps the Mississippi from shifting its course to the Atchafalaya (opening it will divert more water from the Big Muddy to the Atchafalya). The Morganza has only been opened once, in 1973, when it caused extensive flooding to communities down river. This move will be worse than blowing up the levees near Cairo because there are homes and businesses in the Morganza Floodway. (In fact, whether the Morganza opens or not, those communities will flood simply because increased water will flow down the Atchafalya whether anyone wants it to or not. But if the spillway is opened, they're going to be looking at 10 feet rather than 2 or 3.) At this point you're probably wondering, Why is she writing about all of this? I guess the answer is that I find the forces of nature--especially water--fascinating.There is something mesmerizing about watching this destructive wall of water roll towards us, and realizing how powerless we really are to do anything about it. We are looking at a tragedy unfolding. It's only a matter of, How bad will it be?



Charles Gramlich said...

I pray everything holds. It has been dry here but this is no way to get water.

Elaine said...

Having spent many years of my life on the coast of North carolina and southeastern Virginia, I am well acquainted with the mesmerizing effect of approaching natural drama. And the efforts of the Corp of Engineers and others to make sure it is melodrama rather than tragedy. I pray you are well in all this. I would say "Bonne chance" but apparently that is counter-productive? I'm to say "merde" instead? You've gotta love the French.

Barbara Butler McCoy said...

Keeping you, indeed everyone 'in the zone,' in my thoughts and prayers.

paz said...

Sad to hear that things are so dire. My thoughts are with you. Here's to hoping that the drier soil will soak up a bit more of water than expected.

Essex said...

I hope that you all get safely through this latest demonstration of nature's power.

cs harris said...

Charles, are you suggesting we might have a reason to doubt the Corps' abilities?

Elaine, I suppose it's because it so vividly reminds us that we are both a part of nature and totally insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

Barbara, I suspect before this is over a lot of people are going to find their lives devastated. It's going to be heartbreaking to watch.

Paz, we had a drought after Katrina, too. It lasted for months.

Essex, I'm also thinking of all the unsuspecting animals who've made their homes in the Bonnie Carre spillway and will now drown when the gates are opened.

Steve Malley said...

Yikes. Just... yikes.

cs harris said...

Steve, Yikes is right. The latest projection is a flood of 19.5 feet, which will be 6 inches below the top of the levees. And that is assuming they hold.

orannia said...

I just saw the flooding on the news - my thoughts are all with you!

Gary said...

You say the river is cresting on May 22 at 17.5 feet (or 19.5 feet)above flood stage. That simply isn't true. Flood stage at New Orleans is 17.0 ft. above sea level. So, a crest of 19.5 feet is only 2.5 ft. above flood stage. The river is usually below +5.0, so yes it is very high, but this happens every time there is a long, snow-filled winter up north. Ya just gotta learn to go with the flow!! (no pun intended)

Elaine said...

Watching the worrisome news. Prayers and positive thoughts for you.

cs harris said...

Orannia, I really couldn't go through that again. I just couldn't.

Gary, I can only go with what the government says. All I know is that the river is supposed to be within 6 inches of the top of the levees, which are built to handle a flood of twenty feet. The flooding in certain other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi is expected to be catastrophic.

Elaine, Thank you.

Katie said...

As a geologist, we often talk about situations like this. Unfortunately, our attempts to control nature can sometimes make these situations worse. I wish there were some way that we could prevent the inevitable devastation that follows.