Louisiana Prepares To Flood In Self-Defense

The Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that it will open up the Morganza Spillway on Saturday, flooding millions of acres of rich Mississippi farmland. Host Scott Simon gets the latest on the floods plaguing the Mississippi River regions from NPR's Greg Allen in Baton Rouge.

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Scott Simon, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The swollen Mississippi River has taken its toll on Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi, and now the crest is moving south to Louisiana.

The Army Corps of Engineers is planning to open a massive floodway today to try to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from the worst of the flooding. The Morganza Floodway will divert a portion of the river through the Atchafalaya Basin.

At a meeting with the residents in Assumption Parish last night, Colonel Mark Jernigan of the Corps of Engineers said the sheer volume of water flowing down the Mississippi left them with no choice.

Colonel Mark Jernigan (Deputy District Engineers, Corps of Engineers): If we don't operate and we exceed the maximum capacity of the system along the Mississippi River, levies will be overtopped.

SIMON: NPR's Greg Allen is in Baton Rouge and joins us now. Greg, thanks for being with us.

GREG ALLEN: Sure, Scott.

SIMON: To those of us who haven't been through this, this seems like a pretty drastic move to open a floodway that could displace 25,000 people. But there's no alternative?

ALLEN: No. That's the way it is, Scott. I mean Corps officials say that it all comes down to how much water the Mississippi River as it's currently engineered can handle before flood control measures fail.

The Corps has been closely monitoring the amount of water flowing down the Mississippi these last few weeks, and they say once the reaches 1.5 million cubic feet per second, engineers have to begin diverting water through the Morganza Floodway.

What that would do, is start dumping water into the Atchafalaya River flooding the bayous and wetlands that are so much a part of this area. And if they don't take the water out of the Mississippi, the water level keeps rising there, and they run the risks and levies could fail in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and other communities on the river.

That would potentially affect hundreds of thousands of residents. It would also disrupt shipping and other business in New Orleans, and that could cost millions of dollars a day to the region's economy.

SIMON: So help us understand what's going to happen when those floodways are opened later today. Flooding starts immediately?

ALLEN: Well, the floodway will open and water will start flowing in, but they say at first - the Corps says at first that will add just about 10 percent of water to the current volume. They expect that amount will increase over coming days, of course. They'll have to divert more water through the Atchafalaya Basin as the week goes along.

Also after three days or so, water will begin to back up in the basin, and it's that back flooding that most residents are concerned about. To help prevent that back flooding, the local levy board has sunk four barges at a key point in one of the bayous and hope that will minimize flooding in many of these communities.

SIMON: Now, earlier in May the Army Corps of Engineers encountered a lot of opposition and even some lawsuits when they planned to try and open a similar floodway in Missouri. Any opposition in Louisiana?

ALLEN: No, not really. The people I have talked to here are pretty much resigned to the fact that the floodway is going to open. In some ways they're almost impatient to get the Morganza open.

Part of this I think has to do with the fact that the floodway has been opened before in recent - well, not in recent memory - but in memory, in 1973. There are also legal issues in Missouri over flooding, you know, that had to do with flooding easements and those aren't an issue here.

But I think also a lot of it has to do with attitudes. People here in Louisiana are used to living close to the river. Many make their living from the River, and they know the Mississippi has a mind of its own.

Yesterday I talked to a lady named Sheryl Vaughan in Pierre Part. She was out filling sandbags with their son, working to build a four foot tall levy around her house. I asked her why people aren't angry about the decision to open the floodway, and this is what she had to say.

Ms. SHERYL VAUGHAN: We were all raised on the water. My dad made his living fishing. My son has fished. My son-in-law makes money fishing, so it's kind of like, you know, something you just have to do. I don't want to live in the city. I want to live here, but I just don't wanna have to fight the water.

SIMON: Greg, are people starting to evacuate?

ALLEN: Well, I have not seen that, Scott. I think several Parishes I know have issued voluntary evacuation recommendations. You know, wind conditions warrant when the water starts to rise. But that will be a few days yet before waters start to rise here. So people are working to protect their homes in the meantime.

But of course it's early days. The Corps said the floodwaters are not expected to crest here for another week at least, and after that it could be two to three weeks before flood waters recede.

SIMON: NPR's Greg Allen in Baton Rouge. Thanks very much.

ALLEN: My pleasure.

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