Flood Waters Moving Slower Than Expected

The Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway along the Mississippi River. It was meant to take pressure off the levees in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as well as redirect water to rural areas and farmlands. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR's Greg Allen, who's been covering the flood in Louisiana and shares locals' stories.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now we head to Louisiana, where the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway last weekend. The idea is to take pressure off the levees protecting the heavily populated cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. But the open spillway directs water toward rural communities in the Atchafalaya River Basin, flooding areas that would have otherwise stayed dry. Greg Allen has been covering the situation in Louisiana for NPR, and he's with us on the phone now from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Greg, thanks so much for joining us once again.

GREG ALLEN: Sure. My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: And we just heard from the mayor of Vicksburg, Mississippi, as you heard, where the floods are expected to crest on Thursday. What about in Louisiana? What are you seeing there?

ALLEN: Well, you know, well, they've been getting ready here for high water for some time, and we've started to see water rising since last Saturday when they opened the Morganza Spillway. But it's coming slower than what many people expected, than what the Army Corps of Engineers predicted. They think that's because, for a few reasons, the ground is very dry here. It hasn't rained much so, I think some is soaking in. Also, the tributaries that lead into the Mississippi are lower, because there's been so little rain in this region.

So it's coming a little slower, but that said, it did - it has reached highway 190, which is right where you start to get some people living close to the floodway. So I think we're going to be - start seeing water getting up into some of these communities in the next few days. Well, people are already seeing it in their backyards, but I'm not aware that anybody who lives outside of the main path of the floodway has actually been flooded - although we have had, you know, 3,000 people or so evacuated from these communities.

MARTIN: So, people have been evacuated, but nobody's underwater yet, so far as we know.

ALLEN: That's right. I mean, I just saw some pictures that the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife put out, where they show some roads that are right in the path of the floodway that are well underwater, you know. It's hard to tell, but they look like they're under six feet or more of water. But few people actually live in those areas right in the - directly in the path of the floodway. These are up north, near the Morganza. They have pictures there also of deer, like, swimming through the water.

You're seeing a lot of animals starting to move in those areas to higher ground, and there are lots of higher levees that they can get to. So, you see, we see that. But the water has been moving slowly, and - but I think they evacuated those communities quicker - quickly, to try to get people out. I think they want to get peoples' attention. There were some complaints from residents that they were being forced to leave more quickly than they thought they needed to, but I don't believe the police were really, you know, enforcing it. They were trying to encourage people, and I think for the most part, people have gotten out.

MARTIN: Now, the dilemma that the Army Corps of Engineers has been presented with has been described kind of as a devil's choice. I mean, they open the Morganza Spillway, which is supposed to take the pressure off the levees in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which are the state's most heavily populated cities. But that puts the flood waters literally on the doorsteps of the state's residents, which means that they are the ones who are going to have to be - if things go as anticipated - have to be flooded. And I'm wondering how people feel about that.

ALLEN: Well, it's been really interesting an education for me, Michel, is I've talked to these people the last several days down here. You know, especially comparing it to the experience we had in Missouri when they opened the Birds Point floodway earlier this month. And there you'll recall there was a lot of opposition from farmers whose land was being flooded and there was even a lawsuit to try to stop that.

Down here the attitude is totally different and, you know, you have to pin it to a few - several different things. One is that the Morganza Floodway was opened in 1973. You know, the Birds Point one hadn't been opened, I think, you know, since 1938. So it is at least in some people's memory here that this could happen.

But I think even more than that, this area, the Atchafalaya Basin, is one that is dependent on water. And, in fact, historically, before they built the floodway, it would get to see much more high water throughout this time of year. So they're not unused to high water here. And people know how to kind of stay away from it and how to sandbag their houses.

And the other interesting thing about it is that people - many people there live and work and, you know, recreate on the water. And they know that the Atchafalaya needs this water. I mean, it's necessary to recharge this basin. You know, as I say, because of the Morganza spillway and some other things that have been put upriver, much less water comes through the Atchafalaya Basin than used to.

And that's led to a decline in the fishing and the crawfishing and the water levels that they are used to and it's started to change the basin. So when you talk to people there, they actually see it, believe it or not, many people see it as a good thing.

MARTIN: Hmm. Interesting. And while you've talking to people, I just want to play a short clip from somebody you had talked to, Keith Hendrick(ph) in Butte LaRose, Louisiana. He was moving everything out of his fishing camp in preparation for the flood. And I'll just play a short clip from what he told you.

KEITH HENDRICK: The damage could be anywhere from just water in the camp to a boat or a barge - big barge coming loose and going through it. Just do not know.

MARTIN: So he didn't sound - he sounded, as you were describing, kind of with such a peace about it, if I can put it that way.

ALLEN: Yeah. Michel, when I was talking to him, he was having a party at his fish camp. Brought all his friends in there and they were, you know, moving stuff out. They were taking everything out - his air conditioners. Everything they can unbolt and take out. All his furniture. And that's what we've seen throughout the region. People are going very, you know, very workman-like about this. They're bringing in trailers and trucks and just loading everything...

MARTIN: And doing what they got to do. And, finally, Greg, before we let you go - we have about a minute left - about where you are now in Baton Rouge, what's the attitude there? Are people worried? Are they feeling confident that things will go as planned?

ALLEN: Well, I think there actually is a level of concern here in Baton Rouge and along the river down to New Orleans. And it, you know, it has to do with the fact that we're seeing high water now within a couple of feet of the top of the levees at the lowest spots. The Army Corps is going to keep the water at this level, about 45 feet, going through Baton Rouge. But that still puts a lot of pressure on the levees.

And you've got crews out patrolling every day constantly looking for what they call sand boils. This is where water percolates up through the levee. And that's not necessarily a terrible thing. But if the water starts to turn muddy, it suggests that some material is being washed out of the levee and that it's being compromised. And that's when they start to worry and worry about a possible breach.

And that's happening here and in New Orleans and in communities all along the river. And that's going to go on for at least another month. The high water is going to be here for some time.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen has been in Louisiana covering the flooding there and we caught up with him on the line from Baton Rouge. Greg, thanks so much for joining us.

ALLEN: My pleasure, Michel.

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