By Brian K. Sullivan
As Mississippi wages a battle against rising river waters along its border with Arkansas, Louisiana is preparing for fights on two major waterways.
A bulge of water rolling south down the Mississippi River drove the crest in Memphis to 47.87 feet, just under the record 48.7 feet set in 1937, and threatens to set more high-water marks before the flow splits in Louisiana, with 70 percent remaining in its channel and 30 percent running down the Atchafalaya River.
As the Mississippi River Commission comes closer to a decision on opening the Morganza spillway and boosting the Mississippi’s flow into the Atchafalaya basin, cities and towns on both waterways are preparing for flooding.
“We’re not waiting for that,” Governor Bobby Jindal said today. “We’re telling our people to prepare for the worst.”
Rising Mississippi waters also threaten operations at 10 Louisiana refineries that account for about 14 percent of U.S. operating capacity.
Flooding may affect 2,264 oil wells producing about 19,000 barrels a day, about 10 percent of Louisiana’s total, said Matt Ross, communications director for the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. He said about 150 companies operate in the four- parish area in or near the spillway zone.
As much as 252.6 million cubic feet a day of gas may be threatened, Anna Dearmon, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, said in an e-mail.
Baton Rouge Prepares
City workers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital, have placed two miles of orange tubing filled with water on top of an earth and concrete levee to raise it above the expected record 47.5-foot (14-meter) crest the National Weather Service says may arrive by May 22.
“It’s been a grueling two-and-a-half to three weeks for us,” Mayor Melvin “Kip” Holdren said to a crowd of more than 200 at a public meeting today. “If there is a breach in the levee, we’re going to have some problems.”
In Melville, Louisiana, about 41 miles (66 kilometers) northwest of Baton Rouge, residents lined the banks of the Atchafalaya to watch its rising water rush under a seven-span lift bridge that carries Union Pacific Corp. trains.
“It looks like it is coming to get us,” said Gerry Krasgrow, who grew up in the town. “It’s like a monster coming down the river.”
For weeks, the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, swollen by heavy rain and melted snow, have been inundating cities and towns, flooding croplands and disrupting shipping. The Ohio rose to 61.72 feet, a record in Cairo, Illinois, before joining the Mississippi there.
The threat of that flood reaching Baton Rouge and New Orleans has the Mississippi River Commission considering opening the 125 gates of the Morganza Floodway. Built in 1954, the floodway would release 600,000 cubic feet of water per second into central Louisiana and the Atchafalaya River, taking pressure off the Mississippi and the cities downstream, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The decision will be made if the flow at Louisiana’s Red River Landing north of Baton Rouge reaches 1.5 million cubic feet per second, said Ricky Boyette, a corps spokesman. The flow was at 1.46 cubic feet per second today.
Jindal said at a press conference today that the decision could come as early as the day after tomorrow.
‘Comfort’ to City
“We think it would give us a great deal of comfort it they open that,” said William Daniel, interim director of Baton Rouge’s department of public works.
The Corps of Engineers already opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway upstream from New Orleans to siphon Mississippi water into Lake Pontchartrain.
“This is the biggest train wreck in the history of Louisiana, but it’s the slowest train wreck in the history of Louisiana,” said Ryan Heck, who sells pumps for Hertz Service Pump & Compressor in Baton Rouge.
Before the high water hits Louisiana, it has to travel past Mississippi, where officials are most concerned about tributary flooding in the fertile Delta region in the northwestern corner of the state, Governor Haley Barbour said yesterday in a press conference.
In Vicksburg, Mississippi, workers at the Rainbow Casino Hotel stacked sandbags to shield it from the river, while 7 feet of water washed into the entrance to Caesars Entertainment Corp.’s Harrah’s Tunica, Mississippi’s largest casino.
The flood has shut 17 of Mississippi’s 19 river-based casinos in the U.S.’s third-largest gaming-employment market, jeopardizing thousands of jobs and $13 million a month in taxes. Flooding will slow the state’s recovery from a recession two years ago, already lagging behind the U.S., said Sohini Chowdhury, an economist with Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
“There is no doubt that the casino closures will weigh on the state’s recovery,” Chowdhury said. “A month of inactivity would deprive the already cash-strapped local and state governments of critical funds.”
As many as 3,900 people may be affected by flooding in northern Louisiana, above the spillway, Jindal said at a press conference yesterday. A century-old secondary levee in northeastern Louisiana was overrun by water for the first time, threatening 10,000 acres of farmland, the Monroe News Star reported today.
Opening the Morganza probably will mean the river won’t rise as high as forecast in Baton Rouge, although it may only be a foot lower, said Bryan Harmon, deputy director of the public works department. The river is expected to crest at 19.5 feet in New Orleans, which is protected by levees to 20 feet, unless the spillway is used, according to the Corps of Engineers.
Harmon said he favors anything to help Baton Rouge’s levee.
“A catastrophic failure would impact 100,000 people,” Harmon said.
As a line of last defense, Harmon said the city was keeping all its sandbags and wouldn’t give any to the public. If the levee fails, building a sandbag ring around a house won’t help, he said.
Dikes and sandbags are going up around towns and homes in the spillway area. Jindal said opening the spillway could flood 3 million acres in south Louisiana.
Krasgrow and neighbor Darrell Porche said they wouldn’t evacuate Melville, even though both thought the river would rise high enough to push on the earth levee that protects it. Porche said the levee broke during the 1927 flood.
If the town does flood, “I’ll take my important papers and leave,” Porche said. “I’d have a couple of cats to board.”
“I feel safe in Melville,” Krasgrow said. “We’ve got levees on four sides of us.”