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La. Spillway Opens To Divert Mississippi River

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The Army Corps of Engineers began opening Louisiana's Morganza spillway on Saturday in an attempt to spare New Orleans and Baton Rouge from massive flooding. That move will send almost a third of the water in the Mississippi River spilling out into massive swaths of Cajun country in the next few days. Host Guy Raz gets the latest from NPR's Greg Allen, who's at the spillway.

GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

Our cover story today, saving New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The Army Corps of Engineers is doing just that at this hour. They've opened up a floodgate along the Mississippi River, the Morganza gate, for the first time since 1973.

Now, that should relieve some of the pressure building up along the Mississippi, but it will end up flooding about 3,000 square miles of Louisiana's bayou. In a moment, we'll hear from a woman in Butte LaRose. That's the town that will soon be underwater.

First, though, to NPR's Greg Allen. He's actually on top of the Morganza Spillway. It's about 40 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.

And, Greg, can you describe what it looks like from where you are?

GREG ALLEN: Well, Guy, you know, they only opened one gate here in this huge structure, so we weren't sure how big and how impressive it would be. But I can tell you it's truly impressive.

You've got this huge amount of white water just cascading through the open gate. And as the water comes through, we actually see fish jumping out of the water, fish that, you know, just a few minutes ago were on the other side of the gate in the Mississippi. Now they're in this area that used to be dry land. You've got have this huge metal that's now starting to fill up, giving you a sense of what's going to happen as this water moves downstream.

RAZ: Now they're doing this, of course, to prevent major flooding in Louisiana's two largest cities. It's the first time since 1973 that engineers have opened up the spillway that you're on top of. Is it working? Are they saying it's working as expected so far?

ALLEN: Yes. I mean, there's been a lot of questions about it, you know, because it's been used so rarely. And as you say, the last time was 1973. I've talked to a lot of residents. There's been a lot of stuff written on blogs about what happens if they can't put the Mississippi back in the banks, you know, when this is all over.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been very clear that this thing has been tested repeatedly and that they have total confidence that the Morganza floodway is going to work as planned.

And, in fact, they only expected to use, you know, a small portion of it. As I say, only one gate that's been opened. Eventually, they may only use about a quarter of the gate. So the capacity of this structure to operate and to allow water through is much greater than what they're going to use between now and when the floodwater start to recede.

RAZ: So are you looking out over sort of a plain right now, which is largely dry that will be underwater the next day or two?

ALLEN: Well, it filled up very quickly, Guy, I can tell you. We were sitting there for the last hour watching this huge expansive, you know, we'd call it pasture land, big flat area and, you know, just totally dry. And then within just the course of about 10 or 15 minutes, it's totally filled up.

And now you're looking at something that to the - someone like me looks like part of the river. It gives you a sense of what 10,000 cubic feet per second can do. (Unintelligible) this close in, eventually this water is going to fill up the entire Atchafalaya Basin. And, you know, by the end of the week, it could start flooding all the way down south by Morgan City.

RAZ: Greg, very briefly, can you explain what will happen downstream?

ALLEN: Well, downstream people are - one reason they opened it - they're opening it slowly, just one gate at a time, they'll open more gates tomorrow, is they want to give people time to get out of the way, and also animals time to get out of the way. There are black bears and other large mammals that live in the floodway.

So they're opening it slowly to give everybody a chance to evacuate, whether they're animal or human. And it's all the way down in Butte LaRose today. I know you're going to speak to someone from there. And people there are packing up and getting out because they will see water by - probably by tomorrow.

RAZ: That's NPR's Greg Allen at the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana.

Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: My pleasure, Guy.

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