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In Battle Against Mississippi River Flood, Corps Engineers Open Spillway

People look on as water from the rising Mississippi River is released through the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Norco, Louisiana. The Army Corps of Engineers began redirecting part of the Mississippi River through the spillway today to lower river levels and reduce pressure on levees. i i

People look on as water from the rising Mississippi River is released through the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Norco, Louisiana. The Army Corps of Engineers began redirecting part of the Mississippi River through the spillway today to lower river levels and reduce pressure on levees. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mario Tama/Getty Images
People look on as water from the rising Mississippi River is released through the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Norco, Louisiana. The Army Corps of Engineers began redirecting part of the Mississippi River through the spillway today to lower river levels and reduce pressure on levees.

People look on as water from the rising Mississippi River is released through the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Norco, Louisiana. The Army Corps of Engineers began redirecting part of the Mississippi River through the spillway today to lower river levels and reduce pressure on levees.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway to ease pressure on the levee system protecting Louisiana, this morning. But, now, they are working on maps detailing the flooding that would occur if they opened the Morganza Spillway north of Baton Rouge. Unlike the Bonnet Carré, which was opened in 2008, the Morganza Spillway hasn't been opened since 1973.

The Times-Picayune reports:

[Louisiana Gov. Bobby] Jindal offered a succinct warning for the entire state as he encouraged residents to prepare immediately: "If you got wet in 1973, you'll get wet this time. If you nearly got wet in 1973, you'll probably get wet this time."

Jindal has declared a state of emergency, activating more than 400 Louisiana National Guardsmen to assist in placing sandbags and river barriers, inspect levees and walk door-to-door to notify residents and property owners in basins and floodways from Vidalia to Morgan City. The governor said he told Corps officials he would like at five days notice between the final decision and the actual opening of the Morganza. The governor said the National Guard can direct its evacuation and preparation protocol in three days, but prefers five.

According to the Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi River is continuing to swell at historic levels, "not seen since 1927." If they did nothing, they say, the levee system in Baton Rouge and New Orleans would be operating in excess of its design and could result in catastrophic failure. So, they're drawing up maps to predict which communities will need to be evacuated, if the Morganza Spillway is opened.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Corps is working with decades old flood plans and a philosophy that tries to prevent floods. Now, there are calls to overhaul the system and place emphasis on smart development:

Even the Corps itself is in the process of officially changing its approach. For decades, the agency has focused on preventing floods, with the Mississippi flood-control system dating to the aftermath of the great flood of 1927. This summer, it expects to win federal approval for a policy it has begun phasing in over the past several years: allowing more flooding, while working with local and state governments to manage development on surrounding land to reduce economic damage from floods.

The idea isn't to dismantle the hard structures, but to use other techniques to prevent the river from getting so high. "Whenever possible, the best way to manage floods is with a natural flood plain," said Terrence "Rock" Salt, the U.S. Army's deputy assistant secretary overseeing the Corps of Engineers' water-resource policy.

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