MORGANZA DAM, La. – May 14, 2011 (icedjamb.com) – – Record water levels on the lower Mississippi River forced Army Corps of Engineers operators Saturday morning to utilize a 4,000 feet wide spillway at the massive Morganza Dam. The opening of 125 flood gates will allow waters of the Mississippi River to flow through a 20 mile long path of farms, towns and forests to the Atchafalaya Basin. From there the torrents of silt-filled water will slowly move southward to the Gulf of Mexico. The initial release of water is expected to spread over 3,000 acres of Louisiana’s Cajun country, inundating at least 11,000 structures that include some of the state’s most famous plantation houses. At least 25,000 persons will be forced to evacuate the region.
The initial phase of artificial flooding is expected to cover a corridor of land, roughly 70 miles long and 10 miles wide. However, the Mississippi River’s level is continuing to rise, so additional releases of water may be required. Although the Corps of Engineers has not publicly predicted secondary flooding, the natural drainage system of much of southern Louisiana will probably be affected. In the past, opening of flood gates has caused the water levels of natural bayous as much as 120 miles away from the Atchafalaya Basin to back up and damage property.
The official reason stated by the Corps of Engineers for opening the Morganza Dam floodgates is to save the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In particular, the levees protecting New Orleans are threatened. If certain key levees fail, the resultant flooding could be significantly worse than caused by Hurricane Katrina. Currently, New Orleans river levees show no sign of failure.
The more immediate threat of the swelling Mississippi River is to a complex of refineries, chemical industries and canals downstream from New Orleans. Most were constructed below sea level during the late 20th century, with the assumption that the Corps of Engineers would prevent flooding through manipulation of a complex system of dams, flood gates, pumps and canals. Publicly stated concern for potential disaster in New Orleans is apparently a screen for the knowledge of almost certain, pending damage to the properties of the oil and chemical companies.
During the previous week, sheriff’s deputies and National Guardsmen have been traveling door to door in the parishes downstream from the Morganza Dam to warn residents of eminent danger. Public meetings were held in larger towns where citizens were shown the probable impact of up to 25 feet of water on their landscape. Shocked at the scale of the pending inundation, thousands of residents immediately packed what valuables they could, and headed for higher ground. The State of Louisiana has already made available emergency shelters for over 4,000 evacuees.
Unlike conventional river floods which recede in a matter of days, this artificial flood will drown the terrain for weeks, if not months. The effects of such long term saturation will completely eliminate this year’s growing season in the flooded areas, and probably destroy its hundreds of commercial crawfish farms. Wood-framed homes and commercial structures in the locations where water levels exceed 8 feet will probably be 100% losses by the time the landscape has dried. Most non-native shrubbery and trees will also be killed. Removing the muck and water stains from masonry structures, roads and driveways could cost as much as $50 million.
Claims on the federally-backed National Flood Insurance Program, caused by the record rise in the Mississippi’s waters, are expected to exceed $4 billion. The flood waters are continuing to rise, so the total damage may be much greater. Many regions are experiencing floods in areas where property owners could not obtain either federal or private flood insurance. This is particular true of farmers in eastern Arkansas, northeastern Louisiana and western Mississippi. Uninsured flood damage in those areas may unleash a torrent of loan defaults and bankruptcies.
A man made landscape created no desirable options
In 1973 Richard P. Browne Associates of Columbia, MD was hired by the State of Louisiana to determine the impact of current land development patterns on the future of the state. The engineers, architects and land planners of this consulting firm were appalled by the fragility of a complex system of dams, water pumps and levees that during the previous 170 years had created an artificial landscape in the vicinity of New Orleans. It was immediately clear that the entire system was designed for controlling normal weather conditions, not the large hurricane or exceptional level of precipitation that North America can always expect to arrive, sooner or later.
Without a continuous supply of electricity to run the pumps, much of the New Orleans area would quickly revert back to being swampland. The firm calculated that either a major hurricane passing from southwest to northeast over New Orleans or an unusually high flood of the Mississippi River would cover much of southern Louisiana with water. The firm’s report recommended that the State of Louisiana immediately begin re-locating its petroleum and chemical industrial complexes from south of New Orleans to north of Baton Rouge. It also urged the state to discourage land development in the sections of New Orleans that were below sea level. The report specifically recommended that no future petroleum refinery or chemical plant should be allowed on terrain below sea level.
After reviewing the reports and maps submitted by Richard P. Browne Associates, the State of Louisiana did nothing. Louisiana has continued to encourage industrial development at locations below sea level . Almost all of the refineries and plants that the Corps of Engineers is attempting to protect by flooding the Cajun Country are located below sea level.
The Corps of Engineers ignored Richard P. Browne Associates’ report, and continued to build more canals that directly linked New Orleans with the Gulf of Mexico or Mississippi River. The Corps also failed to strengthen levees that protected the interior of New Orleans from flooding ship canals, it had built inside the city to connect it with the industrial complexes to the south that were below sea level.
In 1973 a Louisiana state official described the consultant firm’s maps of projected damage by a hurricane or exceptional flood to be “the fantasies of Eastern eggheads. They don’t understand the realities of Louisiana politics.” In early September of 2005, those fantasies turned out to be unrealistic only in their underestimation of the scale of a catastrophe a major hurricane could create in southern Louisiana. It appears that the validity of a 38 year old consulting firm’s report is about to be confirmed again.