New Orleans Prepares For Mississippi River Flooding
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
All eyes in Louisiana are on the Mississippi River. Floods that swept the Midwest are headed south, and that will test the levee system in Louisiana. Tegan Wendland at member station WWNO reports that the Army Corps of Engineers has amped up its flood-fighting efforts to protect the city of New Orleans.
TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Nearly half of New Orleans is at or below sea level, so flooding isn't unusual. That's what the city is lined with flood walls and levees. Army Corps engineer Adam Brimer drives his truck along a bike path on top of a levee. He scans for seeping water, or anything that threatens the levy, as the Mississippi River nears flood stage. To the right, a busy road and quiet residential area. To the left, the roiling river, with tree trunks and debris bobbing up and down in the fast-moving water.
ADAM BRIMER: So we're riding along here, and we're doing inspections in conjunction with the levee district. And this is actually the East Jefferson Levee District right here.
Hey, how's it going? You all doing levee inspections?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, coming out, checking the logs, making sure they...
WENDLAND: They tell Brimer they found logs in one area, so they used poles to send them down the river, avoiding a pileup that could crumble the concrete side of the levee.
Can we get out here?
WENDLAND: What are you looking for out here?
BRIMER: Basically I'm looking for anything that's not permitted. Right in front of us are some barges that are moored.
WENDLAND: Those barges could crash against the levee or get loose and float away.
Rick Hansen is the district commander of the Army Corps in New Orleans.
RICK HANSEN: We're confident this system, as it stands today, could safely pass this high-water event.
WENDLAND: The levee inspections will continue around the clock until the river levels drop. And it probably won't happen until the Corps diverts the water. That's what the Bonnet Carre Spillway, just west of New Orleans, is designed to do - let Mississippi River water flow into Lake Pontchartrain. The solution has been used since the 1930s, and it works.
John Lopez with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation says it's also a missed opportunity. The river water carries silt. Let it flow into the marsh, not the lake, and it could restore wetlands. He looks out at the lake from a windy lighthouse.
JOHN LOPEZ: We're not using the river. We don't have alternatives to direct the water into our wetlands. River diversions - we could help rebuild our coast.
WENDLAND: The Corps also plans to open the Morganza Spillway, near Baton Rouge, in coming days. The levees and the spillway were built to protect New Orleans from the river. And Lopez says they do a great job. But failing to rebuild the coast leaves the city much more vulnerable to other water threats, like hurricanes. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans.