LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Louisiana, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Floodway for the first time in 40 years to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from flooding. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports from Baton Rouge, the water is being diverted from the Mississippi into communities along Louisiana's bayous that thousands call home.

(Soundbite of rushing water)

GREG ALLEN: This is truly an impressive sight. Just a few minutes ago, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the first gate in the floodway here on the Morganza. I'm standing on top of the spillway here. We're seeing huge cascades of whitewater come through the gate.

Colonel ED FLEMING (Army Corps of Engineers): This is a historic day. It's a historic day not only for the entire Mississippi River, but for the state of Louisiana.

ALLEN: Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Ed Fleming says it's the first time the Corps has ever operated three floodways at once on the Mississippi. In Missouri, the Corps blew holes in levees earlier this month to open the Birds Point Floodway. That lowered the river and protected Cairo, Illinois from flooding. The Corps has also opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway north of New Orleans and now the Morganza Floodway.

Fleming says the Morganza is being opened to keep stress off the Mississippi levees that protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Col. FLEMING: And we'll take approximately ten thousand cubic feet per second off the top of the Mississippi River.

ALLEN: That's just a fraction of what the Morganza can handle. Even when the river crests in this area late next week, the Corps expects to open just a quarter of the floodgates. Fleming says the Corps will open the gates slowly -just one or two at a time - for a few reasons. One is to protect the spillway.

Col. FLEMING: The water will come out of here pretty quickly. You don't want to scour the backside of this structure. From an environmental perspective, obviously there are lots of bear, other kinds of wildlife, and we want to make sure they have the opportunity to get to higher ground. And last but most importantly, we want to make sure that folks have the understanding that water's coming their way and they need to evacuate.

ALLEN: About 60 miles south of the Morganza Spillway, the people of Butte La Rose have gotten the message. At the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, Teddy and Michelle Wyatt, along with their friend Clo Comeaux, were stacking pews from the church on a trailer.

Mr. TEDDY WYATT: We all volunteered to...

Ms. MICHELLE WYATT: Help one of our churches.

Mr. WYATT: ...take everything out, to salvage what we could.

ALLEN: What have you taken out so far?

Mr. WYATT: The pews, the altar, the cross, you know, just...

Ms. WYATT: Anything that was movable.

Mr. CLO COMEAUX: AC units, anything that could be damaged in the flood, we're moving everything out.

ALLEN: Down by the levee, a group of trustees - prisoners from the St. Martin Parish jail - are working to fill sandbags to protect public and private buildings. They're being supervised by Clayton Landry with the sheriff's department. He says it's been a busy week in Butte La Rose.

Mr. CLAYTON LANDRY (St. Martin Parish Sheriff's Department): People are trying to move out, move their gears out of their homes and camps and, you know, save as much as they can, you know.

ALLEN: Is it your sense people are going to be leaving? That people aren't going to stay?

Mr. LANDRY: No. The sheriff hasn't announced a mandatory evacuation yet, but as soon as the water rises, they will announce it.

ALLEN: That could come in the next few days. The Corps says it will take about three days for water in the floodway to reach the southern end, near Morgan City. Then it will begin to back up throughout the Atchafalaya Basin, backflooding bayou communities that are home to as many as 25,000 people. In these communities, people aren't happy about having to fight the water, but few question the Corps' decision to open the floodway.

As for Corps officials, they're cautiously optimistic that with the Morganza, plus all the other levees and floodways in their tool box, they'll be able to handle the 2011 flood and avert a catastrophe.

But Corps General Michael Walsh says it's important that hundreds of workers with the Corps and other agencies keep patrolling the levees to watch for warning signs. History, he says, shows the price of failure.

General MICHAEL WALSH (Army Corps of Engineers): There was an 80-mile width of water covering five states from the '27 flood. So, any type of failure or any type of concerns from that regards in regards to underseepage or overtopping we're going to be on rapidly. And I'd ask you all to remain vigilant.

ALLEN: The Corps expects to keep the Morganza Floodway open until the Mississippi crests in Louisiana and falls below a level that's a threat to levees in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Unfortunately for people in the Atchafalaya Basin, that may be another three weeks.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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