Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why Did We Open the Morganza Spillway?

I know people who live in Terrebonne Parish and near the Atchafalaya Basin. Naturally some of them are suspicious about the reasons behind the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' (USACE) decision to open the Morganza Spillway because its opening will result in flooding an area that includes approximately 25,000 people in south-central Louisiana.

This event is rightfully described as a modern-day sacrifice to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge from flooding, but some people in the Atchafalya who have only recently begun to feel that they've recovered from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav ask, "Why now after all these years? Why for the first time since 1973 are they opening the Morganza?" I understand the sorrow and apprehension behind the questioning. Some people ask even when they already know the answer because the questions help them process inevitable loss.

It is not my intent with this post to debate the ethics of such decisions. Nor will I examine why the areas selected for flooding are often poor areas. I simply wish to place in historical context what's happening because I perceive that some viewers and news gazers, perhaps due to hectic lives, are missing parts of this story.

Speaking of the USACE's decision to keep Cairo, Ill., from flooding by blowing up Missouri levees at Birds Point, levees that protect Missouri farmland, Jeff Opperman at explains in his April 29 blog post that such decisions are not made haphazardly. (The levees were blown up on May 2.) He tells his readers that officials are following policies in a system that has been set up since 1928, a system established after the devastating flood of 1927.

I suspect that quite a few busy, hard-working people down here were not paying attention to the USACE exploding the levees on the Missouri/Illinois border two weeks ago, but residents in Missouri whose farm land would be flooded probably watched reports like the one in the following video with trepidation.

Undoubtedly this is the kind of report Opperman has in mind when he writes:
The breathless coverage describes a seemingly last-ditch, desperate proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to blow up a levee and send a torrent of floodwater across 130,000 acres of Missouri cropland. By breaching the levee and sacrificing the farms, the Corps hopes to lower the level of the Mississippi River and relieve pressure against other levees protecting the town of Cairo, Illinois.

The story packs great drama as it pits town against farmer, one state against another, and state leaders against a federal agency: Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has taken the Army Corps to Federal Court in a bid to stop their plan. [That bid failed.]
This 2011 drama that has now reached us here in Louisiana with the opening of the Morganza Spillway began months ago, as the Insurance Journal explains through other sources:
“The flooding began when a critical weather pattern brought tornadoes, hail, damaging winds and large quantities of precipitation over the Mississippi and Tennessee Valleys,” said Dr. Boyko Dodov, principal scientist at catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide. “This large, slow-moving system, spanning a period of almost a month, and encompassing several rainstorm events, has contributed to record accumulations of precipitation and major flooding in these regions.”
Perhaps nothing shows us how we are all connected as much as the groaning and outbursts of Mother Nature.

Opperman connects the dots for us further when he says that "this drama (as relayed sometimes through mainstream media) obscures some important insights about how we manage floods and floodplains." A video at the top of his post provides the beginnings of context, and so I've posted it below. Michael Reuter of the Nature Conservancy stands beside the New Madrid Floodway discussing the unprecedented water levels that rose in the Ohio and Mississippi rivers this year following higher-than-average rainfall, and he describes the power of these two great rivers that "drain to 41 percent of the nation, portions of 31 states."

"If you think of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers as two big four- or six-lane highways coming together. And it's been moving slowly. We've got water where we've never seen before," says Reuter.

We now know that the overflow of these rivers made its way to Tennessee, flooding parts of Memphis. With the Memphis flooding, the newsy noise of potential flooding in Louisiana grew louder and people began to pay attention as talk of opening the Morganza and Bonnet Carré spillways crept into daily television, newspaper reports, and household conversations.

We all want to understand what's going on when news events disrupt our lives. Especially curious are those who are too young to remember the last time the Morganza was opened in 1973 or who were so young that they didn't pay attention to its significance back then. I've turned to state schoolbooks to refresh my memory.

The Louisiana Journey, an 8th-grade Louisiana history book published after Hurricane Katrina, explains how the government controls Louisiana rivers and the history of the levees and spillways. It's written in accessible language, and I learned this research trick reading a interview with Nora Roberts, I think, who said she goes to children's books when she's trying to learn about a scientific or technical process and then builds from there.

The history book says that "Louisiana's many rivers are a mixed blessing." They've shaped the land and our way of life, contributing to Louisiana's economy, but each waterway comes with dangers, the periodic and expected devastation of flooded communities. According to the book, the French built the first levees in the state in the 1700s hoping to manage river flooding. In the great flood of 1927, one fourth of the state flooded, and as Opperman says in his blog post, a good part of the nation also flooded. As a result, the federal government invested in and built the current levee system.

The book explains what would be apparent to people living down here and that is that levees run on both sides of the Mississippi River. However, while levees solve some problems, they create others:
By confining water to the river channel, water levels inside the levees can become dangerously high. If the levee breaks, as happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, an area may flood rapidly.
Consequently, the levees are not enough to control all the water. You may take a look at the book for illustrations and pictures that show how water rises within a levee system.

The book's narrative continues, telling of the Old River Control Structure, a dam built during 1960s at the head of the Atchafalaya River that directs one quarter of the Mississippi River and all of the Red River into the Atchafalaya, which was once only "a small distributary" of the Mississippi. The Old River Control Structure has kept the Mississippi from changing course to flow down the Atchafalaya, but it almost broke during the 1973 flood. Repairs were made.

If you read the section discussed here of The Louisiana Journey, you'll get a good sense of how men have tried to control the Mississippi and other waterways for the sake of commerce and their own personal interest. For example, in 1831 Captain Henry Miller Shreve, the man for whom Shreveport was named, "cut a shorter channel" from the Mississippi River to the Red "in order to give steamboats easier access to the Red River." It was through this meddling that Old River was created, sending more of the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya, making that river larger and reshaping the land. "So much sediment came down the river in the 1973 flood that a delta was formed," according to the history book.

These changes concern river and geological experts because the reformation of the land, as well as the Atchafalaya being lower than the Mississippi, could cause the Mississippi to change course permanently, flooding forever Morgan City and other towns along the Atchafalaya and destroying the economies of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. What is currently the lower part of the Mississippi would become too shallow for large vessels to navigate. Saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico would flow farther north, contaminating the drinking water of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Vegetation holding soil would die, more land would flow away, and eventually, "what is now the lower Mississippi would become a bay of the Gulf of Mexico."

The river control projects discussed that complement the levees are the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which was built on the Mississippi's east bank to divert its overflow from New Orleans into Lake Pontchartrain; the Morganza, which was built up-river of Baton Rouge on the Mississippi's west bank and directs overflow away from the state's capitol into the Atchafalya Basin; and the Bennett Johnston waterway which helps control Red River, protecting the Shreveport area.

From Wikipedia:
Since the early 20th century, because of manmade alterations in the channel, the Mississippi has sought to change its main channel to the Atchafalaya River. By law, a regulated proportion of the water (30%) from the Mississippi is diverted into the Atchafalaya at the Old River Control Structure. In times of extreme flooding, the US Army Corps of Engineers may open the Morganza Spillway to relieve pressure on levees and control structures along the Mississippi. On May 13, 2011, in the face of a rising Mississippi River that threatened to flood New Orleans and other heavily populated parts of Louisiana, the USACE ordered the Morganza Spillway opened ... This water floods the Atchafalaya Basin between the levees along the western and eastern limits of the Morganza and Atchafalaya basin floodways.
While critiquing media coverage of the USACE's blowing up the levees in Missouri two weeks ago, Opperman clarifies a point some of us, perhaps those who did not grow up here or who are young, miss in Louisiana:
[I]t was very hard to find an article that mentioned one crucial point. The 130,000 acres the Corps proposes to intentionally flood has a name: the New Madrid Floodway. Simply using that term—floodway—would certainly have shed some light on this debate.

An accurate sentence describing this controversy could read as follows: “Faced with possibly the highest river levels ever recorded at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the Army Corps of Engineers has announced that, if necessary to protect lives and property, it will divert approximately one-fourth of the Mississippi River’s flow into the New Madrid Floodway. The New Madrid Floodway was authorized by Congress in 1928 in response to the cataclysmic 1927 Mississippi flood. By allowing the intentional flooding of select areas like the New Madrid Floodway, cities, towns and farms along the river can have greater security from flood disasters.”
He acknowledges that his paragraph is not exciting, but makes an excellent case that in focusing on the drama and fears of flooding, some media outlets misrepresent the history and laws behind the explosion of the levees, and I add that such coverage distorts the opening of spillways as well. For instance, we've heard the phrase "opening the Morganza Spillway" often without the clarification "so the waters will flow into the floodway." Both the Morganza and the Bonnet Carré spillway projects were part of the 1928 legislation.

CNN's Don Lemon covered the opening of the first gate of the Morganza. Listen to his voice. He's so amazed and dramatic that not once in this clip does he clarify that what is being flooded is a "floodway." Yes, people have homes in the floodway, and yes it's heartbreaking to think of entire communities taking on waters to protect larger communities, but if the opening of the spillway were placed in context of the devastation of the 1927 flood, subsequent legislation, and the weather system that we witnessed slamming the nation earlier this year, the story might be seen in a different light.

My concern about the way the news is delivered in the video is that it bows to sensationalism by making it sound as though the people in the floodway were oblivious to the possibility that this could ever happen to them. In reality, anyone who lives in a flood-prone area knows that even without the opening of a spillway, their homes may be flooded. I like Don Lemon, and so, I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he may have done a more thorough job earlier in his broadcast, but this clip of his report is all that's posted on CNN's site. Where is the full explanation? Perhaps in a separate online text that no one will read.

As for our local newscasters, I credit them that if you listen long enough, eventually someone will provide a more in-depth explanation of what is happening within the context of history. Often they turn to 1927-flood expert John Barry, a local resident and author who national media outlets also use. Fortunately, Barry brings up the 1927 flood and discusses the history and policies I've mentioned here when he talks about the flooding. So, those listening carefully can get a fuller picture if they want one.
Barry, author of “Rising Tide,” considered the definitive history of the 1927 flood, the most disastrous flood in US history to date that displaced over 600,000 people and flooded 26,000 square miles, says the actions taken by the Corps since that incident produced “a very good comprehensive system that includes all sorts of elements including, by a wide margin, the strongest levees in the U.S.”

The agricultural use of the floodplain is understandable because it “is too valuable to just leave fallow,” Mr. Barry says. But opening the Morganza was a calculated risk work taking, he adds. River levels in New Orleans, for example, are expected to crest at 19.5 feet, just inches from the top of the levees there.

Barry says that possibility could lead to a “massive levee breach” where there would be “Niagara Falls or more pouring of the river for an extended period of time.”

“Once that breach opens, that can’t be closed,” he says, which would cause worse flooding than the city experienced following Hurricane Katrina. (Yahoo News)
While I have compassion for the people whose homes are flooded, I can also tell you that when you buy a home in a floodplain or a floodway, by law you must be informed in writing that your home is located in such an area, and if it's not clear to you from the fine print, it should become clear when you are required, if you have a mortgage, to purchase flood insurance. People who don't live in areas that flood are not required to buy flood insurance in order to get a mortgage.

I have only seen two people interviewed down here on a local station who did not seem to understand that life in the Atchafalaya area is a life that takes on this greater risk. Still, we have to help these people, many of whom are facing this trial with great courage. We cannot leave all the heavy lifting to government programs, especially those of us in New Orleans and Baton Rouge whose homes may be protected by the sacrificial flooding of the Atchafalaya Basin.

Many of the people who live in these areas do so because it is the place their families have lived for centuries and the lifestyle is cultural. Others do not have the financial means to go elsewhere, and as Barry indicates, the farmers in this area are providing a necessary service to the rest of us by increasing our food supply.

NOLAfemmes reports, and I also heard last night on WWL TV, that the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association is working with First NBC Bank and the American Red Cross to raise money for Morganza Spillway flood victims. The Red Cross also has other programs to help those in the flood zone. Please donate.

Related: We Can't Ignore Wetlands: A Look at Books

1 comment:

LaToya said...

Thank you for this.

I thought I was going to explode from the sheer ignorance I was reading from people in this area (I live in Lafayette) about why the Spillway was being opened.

I'm not even originally from this part of the state, but I took a graduate level course at LSU a few years ago that introduced me to the mechanics behind controlling the Mississippi.

I spent the better part of last weekend trying to explain to people why this was necessary and that most of them would receive flooding regardless.
Intentional flooding is always a better choice than having levee failures or even worse, having the Old River Control Structure fail.

You would think the spillway was a secret and that no letters were ever sent out to the residents of the basin. It's like 1927 never happened...not to mention the near disaster back in 1973.

I gave up explaining. As long as the media keeps sensationalizing this and saying that this is solely to "save Baton Rouge and New Orleans," people are going to still feel like victims.