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Morganza Spillway Reduces Pressure on Cities’ Levees; Towns Brace for Water

May 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
On Saturday, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the floodgates of the Morganza Spillway on the Mississippi River to reduce pressure on the levees that protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans. A number of smaller towns are now having to deal with the possibility of devastating flooding. Correspondent Tom Bearden reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Towns across part of Louisiana’s Cajun country lay all but abandoned today, awaiting a deluge from the Mississippi River. Water began pouring across the countryside after engineers opened a major spillway on Saturday. The plan was to ease pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans downriver.

And today Gov. Bobby Jindal said, it’s working.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL, R-La.: Bottom line, some modestly good news, in terms of the crests have been lowered modestly, in terms of the amount of water projected in a number of places in Louisiana, stretching from north Louisiana down south in the spillway, as well as here in Baton Rouge.

But there is still a significant amount of water coming our way. Even with the lower projections, even with the lower predictions for the operation of the spillway, we are still looking at a very significant amount of water, setting some historic records, coming our way.

RAY SUAREZ: That water is expected to inundate a number of towns within days. And local officials warned residents to prepare for a big hit.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports from the town of Krotz Springs, La.

TOM BEARDEN: The Mississippi River regularly tests the massive flood-control system that has evolved over the last 90 years, but it’s been nearly 40 years since people in south Louisiana have had to deal with the possibility of devastating losses intentionally triggered by government decisions.

This weekend, the Army Corps of Engineers began to open the floodgates of the Morganza Spillway to reduce pressure on the levees that protect more than half-a-million people in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, knowingly putting farmland and several small communities in harm’s way. About 25,000 people live in the flood zone.

Col. Ed Fleming is in charge of floodway operations for the Corps.

COL. ED FLEMING, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: We do take all the advantages and disadvantages into account. We understand the human impacts. We understand the environmental impacts. We understand the engineering impacts. And so, none of these decisions are easy. By the time some of these things get to my level, they’re all hard decisions. And so, I don’t take them lightly. But there — there are criteria that go into making it.

TOM BEARDEN: The water coming through the spillway will make its way down through the Atchafalaya River Basin, until it reaches small towns like Krotz Springs. This is one of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in that community. And people here spent the weekend making their final preparations.

About 500 people live here. On Sunday, we found numerous families loading their belongings into pickup trucks and trailers and moving to higher ground. At least one family decided to simply haul grandma’s mobile home out of the flood zone. Last week, town officials decided they needed to do more to protect the 250 homes and the nearby oil refinery. So they called in the Louisiana National Guard. They have been working around the clock to build a two-mile-long temporary levee.

Maj. Jason Mahfouz is running the operation.

MAJ. JASON MAHFOUZ, Louisiana National Guard: We’re using reclaimed asphalt provided by the Department of Transportation as a base course. And that base course is bringing us from what is natural elevation up to 24 feet from where the flood stage is predicted to be.

TOM BEARDEN: Even with the emergency levee and other existing levees, the parish government decided to issue a mandatory evacuation order for Krotz Springs.

Yesterday afternoon, caravans of sheriff’s deputies, municipal police officers and National Guardsmen were going door to door telling people to leave. But the reality is that a mandatory evacuation isn’t really mandatory. People can stay with their property if they want to.

Angel and Wayne Guillory have decided to stay because this is their dream home, only 2 years old.

WAYNE GUILLORY, Louisiana: She’s been planning it for 10 years. And we eventually got comfortable enough on our feet that we could afford it and we built it. And we built it. We built it to withstand hurricanes.

ANGEL GUILLORY, Louisiana: Yes, I have faith that this levee that they’re building is going to hold. It’s going to work. Before they started, I was very scared. I didn’t want to stay here. And then once I saw what they were doing I got very comfortable.

TOM BEARDEN: The Guillorys have flood insurance and believe their home is at a sufficiently high elevation to escape flooding. But many of their neighbors don’t have flood insurance.

Esma Gatlin, who lives a couple of miles away, says she isn’t going to take the chance. Mr. Gatlin is 86 years old, old enough to have lived through the 1927 deluge and those that followed.

What do you do when it floods around here?

ESMA GATLIN, Louisiana: Go with the flow.

TOM BEARDEN: Go with the flow.

We heard that they said over in the community center just a couple of days ago that there’s going to be 15 feet of water right where we’re sitting right now. What do you think about that?

ESMA GATLIN: Well, I better get out of town because I can’t swim.

(LAUGHTER)

TOM BEARDEN: Whether staying our leaving, none of the residents we spoke with seemed angry at the government’s decision to release the water. In fact, they expressed immense gratitude for the Louisiana National Guard.

WAYNE GUILLORY: I have one pork chop left.

TOM BEARDEN: Angel and Wayne Guillory have been cooking hot lunches for the soldiers for the past week.

ANGEL GUILLORY: They’re out here trying to protect our house. I mean, the least we can do is try to give them something decent to eat. Some of these guys are working 14, 18-hour days.

MAN: Yes. Thank you very much.

TOM BEARDEN: What kind of reaction do you get from the soldiers when you deliver the food?

ANGEL GUILLORY: Lots of smiles.

WAYNE GUILLORY: Lots of smiles.

(LAUGHTER)

TOM BEARDEN: Mahfouz says crisis has brought the soldiers and the town together.

MAJ. JASON MAHFOUZ: When you come to a community like this, and then you’re embraced like that, it gives the — it gives meaning to neighbors helping neighbors and protecting what matters, which are the two — which are the two leadership themes for — for the Guard.

TOM BEARDEN: It’s not just homes that will be affected by the floodwaters. Already well-established crops of corn and other commodities will be destroyed. The state’s Agriculture Department estimates 18,000 acres of crops will be lost.

Still, Col. Fleming says, it was the right decision. He says they’re opening the gates gradually to give people time to get out and allow wildlife to react.

COL. ED FLEMING: From a human environment standpoint, we want to make sure folks acknowledge that water is coming — although we have been talking about it for a long time, the water is coming — and they get some time to evacuate.

Number two, from an engineering perspective, we don’t want to open up the spillway very quickly and scour out the facility and the structure itself, and then have problems with the stability of the structure. And, then, third, from an environmental standpoint, there are concerns that there’s a lot of wildlife in there. And when they see water coming, they’re going to be tired. They’re going to running away from it. And they’re going to try to get to higher ground.

So, if we can have a slow rise, then that also takes into account the bears, the deer and the other wildlife that are in the floodway that need to get out and to get to higher ground.

TOM BEARDEN: The highest river level, the crest, hasn’t reached this stretch of the river yet, and won’t for several more days. And even after it has passed, it will take weeks for the water levels to go back to normal.

Several people told us that one of the great ironies of the flood of 2011 is that this region has been suffering from a severe drought, even as the runoff from record-setting rainfall in the Midwest has filled their rivers to the brim.