Floodgate opened to spare Louisiana cities
River diversion swamps farms and rural homes
MORGANZA, La. — Water from the inflated Mississippi River gushed through a floodgate yesterday for the first time in nearly four decades and headed toward thousands of homes and farmland in the Cajun countryside, threatening to slowly submerge the land under water up to 25 feet deep.
As the gate was raised, the river poured out like a waterfall, at times spraying 6 feet into the air. Fish jumped or were hurled through the white froth and within 30 minutes, 100 acres of what was dry land was under about a foot of water.
Opening the Morganza spillway diverted water from Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and the numerous oil refineries and chemical plants along the lower reaches of the Mississippi. Shifting the water away from the cities eased the strain on levees and thwarted flooding that could have been much worse than Hurricane Katrina.
The partial diversion of the river will inundate thousands of square miles of lowlands, but officials say it is necessary to lower the reduce of catastrophe in the big cities downstream. The Mississippi is at, or near, record levels all the way up to Illinois because of extreme flooding in the upper Midwest and runoff from a winter of heavy snowfall.
The Corps opened one bay of the spillway, quickly turning a grassy floodplain, 20 miles long and five miles wide, into another finger of the Mississippi.
Officials said parts of six Louisiana parishes now face flooding in the coming days as the water moves toward the Gulf of Mexico. It will take about a day for the water to reach Interstate 10, and two more days for it to reach Morgan City in the Cajun heartland. Morgan City’s historic downtown is protected by a 20-foot floodwall, but officials fear back-flooding as the water creeps wherever it can across the region.
The Morganza spillway is part of a system of locks and levees built after the great flood of 1927, which killed hundreds and left many more without homes. When the Morganza opened yesterday, it was the first time three flood-control systems have been unlocked at the same time along the Mississippi River, a sign of just how historic the current flooding has been.
In Krotz Springs, La., one of the towns in the Atchafalaya River basin bracing for floodwaters, Monita Reed, 56, recalled the last time the Morganza was opened in 1973.
“We could sit in our yard and hear the water,’’ she said as workers constructed a makeshift levee of sandbags and soil-filled mesh boxes in hopes of protecting the 240 homes in her subdivision.
Some people living in the threatened stretch of countryside — an area known for a drawling French dialect — have started heading out.
“I’m just going to move and store my stuff. I’m going to stay here until they tell us to leave,’’ Reed said.
It took about 15 minutes for the one 28-foot gate to be raised in the middle of the spillway. The corps planned to open one or two more gates today in a painstaking process that gives residents and animals a chance to get out of the way.
Michael Grubb, whose home is just outside the Morgan City floodwalls, hired a contractor last week to raise his house from 2 feet to 8 feet off the ground. It took roughly 17 hours to jack up the house onto wooden blocks.
“I wanted to save this house desperately,’’ said Grubb, 54. “This has tapped us out. This is our life savings here, but it’s worth every penny.’’
Water from the Atchafalaya River was creeping into his backyard, but Grubb was confident his home will stay dry. He has a boat he will use for grocery runs. “This is our home. How could we leave our home?’’ he said.
The water came perilously close to topping Morgan City’s floodwalls in 1973.
Since then, they have been raised to 24 feet and are not expected to be breached, but officials have filled sandbags and stacked them to shore up the levees. The water was expected to reach Morgan City around Tuesday.
“These levees will be under a lot of pressure for a long period of time,’’ said Corps Colonel Ed Fleming.
The corps blew up a levee in Missouri — inundating an estimated 200 square miles of farmland and damaging or destroying about 100 homes — to take the pressure off levees protecting Cairo, Ill., population 2,800.
This intentional flood is more controlled, however, and residents are warned by the corps each year in written letters, reminding them of the possibility of opening the spillway, which is 4,000 feet long and has 125 bays.
At the site of the spillway, water was splashing over the gates on one side before a vertical crane hoisted the 10-ton, steel panel to the let water out. Typically, the spillway, built in 1954, is dry on both sides.
This is the second spillway to be opened in Louisiana. About a week ago, the corps used cranes to remove some of the Bonnet Carre’s wooden barriers, sending water into the massive Lake Ponchatrain and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.
The spillways could be open for weeks, perhaps less time if the river flow starts to subside.