Flooding Sinks La. Economy As Well As Land

The Mississippi River floods continue to inundate the Delta region. Tributaries are backing up, spilling record levels of water and leaving severe damage in their wake. Host Scott Simon speaks with Garret Graves of the Louisiana State Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority about the economic impact of the Mississippi River floods on the region.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

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

The Mississippi River floods continue to inundate the Delta region. Tributaries are backing up, spilling record levels of water and leaving severe damage in its wake.

Parts of the river were closed yesterday after three barges that were swept into a bridge by the swift currents sank near Baton Rouge.

The flooding is wreaking havoc on the region's economy. Communities that rely on the river for commerce and economic stability are suffering. Garret Graves has been keeping watch on the river and the economic reverberations of the floods. He's chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. He joins us from our member station WWNO in New Orleans.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. GARRET GRAVES (Chairman, Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority): You bet. Thank you for the opportunity.

SIMON: And what's the effect of slowing down the barge traffic?

Mr. GRAVES: Well, it's pretty incredible. This area is actually home to about 20 percent of the nation's maritime commerce. You're talking hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity, everything from oil and gas and chemicals to products that are built and crops that are grown up in the Midwest.

The Mississippi River is - it's like America's commerce superhighway. Thirty-one states have access to it, and it's a very, very efficient means of transportation. And so the impacts are profound throughout the economy.

There was an analysis that was done a few years ago that indicated that every day of the river being shut down in Louisiana, it had about a $300 million economic impact.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. This means that people going to their markets upriver will not be able to get certain foods they count on, that sort of thing?

Mr. GRAVES: That's exactly right, everything from the grains and crops that are grown in the Midwest - that would be exported to other countries, to imports coming into the United States.

The alternatives are trying to move some of this commerce to trucks and rail, but this nation just doesn't have the capacity to supplant the incredible tonnage that the Mississippi River is able to handle.

SIMON: Are there people who are going to livelihoods over this?

Mr. GRAVES: Well, in the state of Louisiana alone, we have about one in every seven jobs in our state that's tied back to the river system and the waterways here. We have five of the top 15 ports in the nation in South Louisiana, and much of that is tied back to the river. It's about - 41 percent of the continental United States all comes and drains down in this area. So when you have this volume of water, it really does have extraordinary implications.

SIMON: What are the environmental consequences of all this flooding?

Mr. GRAVES: The Atchafalaya Basin, which is the area that the Morganza Floodway is now sending hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of water into this area. In fact, I think it's about 120,000 cubic feet of water per second right now. This basin is one of the most productive in terms of ecology and wildlife.

And what's happened is all this habitat, all this area is now underwater. And so you're seeing these herds of deer and bear and alligators and all these species that are now all in these small islands of land all trying to get up and stay above the water.

You're also seeing all the - the river with all the nutrients, the phosphates and the nitrates from farms in the Midwest that are coming down into this very ecological productive and diverse basin that are now flooding into this area. And so there will be some impacts. This is very fertile farmland that's very, very important to this area and to the nation.

SIMON: Mr. Graves, do you have a feeling for when the waters might begin to recede, and moreover, when the region might begin to recover from some of the reverses?

Mr. GRAVES: On the Mississippi River basin, we believe that we're seeing the highest level of water that we'll see for at least 10 days, and then we'll - we expect to see some slow decline. But they're telling us to expect higher-than-normal water levels for over a month.

SIMON: Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Thanks so much.

Mr. GRAVES: You bet. Thank you.

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