May 14, 2011 2:12 PM by Chris Welty
MORGANZA, La. (AP) - Engineers prepared Saturday to slowly open
emergency floodgates for the first time in nearly four decades,
purposefully inundating farmlands and homes in Louisiana's Cajun
country to drain the swelling Mississippi River.
Across the countryside, people fled to higher ground, shored up
levees that held the last time the Morganza spillway was opened and
built new walls of sand and dirt to hold back the flood they have
known was coming for weeks. Sheriffs and National Guardsmen were
warning people in a door-to-door sweep, and shelters were ready to
accept up to 4,800 evacuees.
It will take about 10 minutes for one of the Morganza gates to
open, then several hours before any of the water hits sparsely
populated communities. The corps plans to open three gates Saturday
afternoon in a painstaking process that gives residents and animals
a chance to get out of the way.
"It's better for the people. It's better for the critters, and
it's better for the structure," said corps spokeswoman Rachel Rodi
said of the slow opening.
About 25,000 people and 11,000 structures could be in harm's way
when the Morganza spillway is unlocked for the first time since
1973, but diverting the river water will help take the pressure off
levees downstream. Easing the strain on the river walls helps make
sure the river doesn't flood more populated cities like Baton Rouge
and New Orleans, and the numerous oil refineries and chemical
plants along the lower reaches of the Mississippi.
In Krotz Springs, La., one of the towns in the Atchafalaya River
basin bracing for floodwaters, Monita Reed, 56, recalled the last
time the Morganza was opened in 1973.
"We could sit in our yard and hear the water," she said as
workers constructed a makeshift levee of sandbags and soil-filled
mesh boxes in hopes of protecting the 240 homes in her subdivision.
Some people living in the threatened stretch of countryside - an
area known for small farms, fish camps and a drawling French
dialect - have already started heading out. Reed's family packed
her furniture, clothing and pictures in a rental truck and a
"I'm just going to move and store my stuff. I'm going to stay
here until they tell us to leave," Reed said. "Hopefully, we
won't see much water and then I can move back in. "
Opening the spillway will release water that could submerge
about 3,000 square miles, some places would be under as much as 25
feet in some areas.
"Protecting lives is the No. 1 priority," Army Corps of
Engineers Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said Friday at a news conference
aboard a vessel on the river at Vicksburg. A few hours later, the
corps made the decision to open the key spillway.
Engineers feared that weeks of pressure on the levees could
cause them to fail, swamping New Orleans under as much as 20 feet
of water in a disaster that would have been much worse than
Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Instead, the water will flow 20 miles south into the Atchafalaya
Basin. From there it will roll on to Morgan City, an
oil-and-seafood hub and a community of 12,000, and eventually into
the Gulf of Mexico.
The Krotz Springs area was in a sliver of land about 70 miles
long and 20 miles wide, north of Morgan City. The finger-shaped
strip of land was expected to be inundated with 10- to 20-feet of
water, according to Army Corps of Engineers estimates.
It will take days for the water to run south, and it wasn't
expected to reach Morgan City until around Tuesday.
The corps employed a similar cities-first strategy earlier this
month when it blew up a levee in Missouri - inundating an estimated
200 square miles of farmland and damaging or destroying about 100
homes - to take the pressure off the levees protecting the town of
Cairo, Ill., population 2,800.
The disaster was averted in Cairo, a bottleneck where the Ohio
and Mississippi rivers meet.
This intentional flood is more controlled, however, and
residents are warned by the corps each year in written letters,
reminding them of the possibility of opening the spillway, which is
4,000 feet long and has 125 gate bays.
At the site of the spillway, a vertical crane was in position to
hoist the gate panel and let water out one of the bays. On one side
of the spillway, water was splashing over the gates. The other side
Typically, the site of the spillway is dry on both sides. But
when the river rises to historic levels, like the ones seen over
the past couple of weeks, it holds the Mississippi in place.
The spillway, built in 1954, is part of a flood plan largely put
into motion in the 1930s in the aftermath of the devastating 1927
flood that killed hundreds.
It is set to be opened when a flow rate of 1.5 million cubic
feet per second is reached and projected to rise. Just north of the
spillway at Red River Landing, the river had reached that flow
rate, according to the National Weather Service.
To put things in perspective, corps engineer Jerry Smith
crunched some numbers and found that the amount of water flowing
past Vicksburg, Miss., would fill the Superdome, where the NFL's
New Orleans Saints play, in 50 seconds.
This is the second spillway to be opened in Louisiana. About a
week ago, the corps used cranes to remove some of the Bonnet
Carre's wooden barriers, sending water into the massive Lake
Ponchatrain and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.
That spillway, which the corps built about 30 miles upriver from
New Orleans in response to the flood of 1927, was last opened in
2008. It has now been opened 10 times since the structure was
completed in 1931. The spillways could be opened for weeks, or
perhaps less, if the river flow starts to subside.
In Vicksburg, Miss., where five neighborhoods were underwater, a
steady stream of onlookers posed for pictures on a river bluff
overlooking a bridge that connects Louisiana and Mississippi. Some
people posed for pictures next to a Civil War cannon while others
carried Confederate battle flags being given away by a war
Vicksburg was the site of a pivotal Civil War battle and is home
to thousands of soldier graves.
James Mims, 50, drove about an hour from Calhoun, La., with his
wife, son and three grandchildren to snap a photo.
"It's history in the making and we're seeing it happen," Mims