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 Carré Spillway has been constructed. The Bonnet Carré (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?