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Mississippi River Flooding Hits Historic Levels, Tests Levee System

May 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Mississippi River approached its highest level ever Monday, forcing the city of Memphis to evacuate homes as they wait for the river to peak, which is expected as early as tonight. Jeffrey Brown gets the latest on the surging flood waters from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and the Army Corps of Engineers' Steve Stockton.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The historic flooding of the Mississippi River hit low-lying neighborhoods of Memphis today, with the river now expected to crest as early as tonight.

Over the weekend, forecasters had predicted the crest would happen tomorrow. With the river moving faster than expected, the National Weather Service says it could hit 48-feet this evening in Memphis, just shy of the 48.7-foot mark set in 1937.

MAN: I have been in Memphis for 62 years. I — and never in my life have I ever seen anything like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hundreds of Memphis residents have been abandoning homes for days. Many are residing in shelters. Fearing a repeat of Hurricane Katrina, where televised evacuation warnings weren’t enough to get everyone out in time, authorities spent the weekend knocking on doors, telling people to leave.

Despite the extreme nature of the flooding, many residents are unfazed.

MAN: Well, you know, a certain amount of it is — is, if you’re going to live along the river you’re going to take some risk of — of the river going up and down. And so we were aware of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eleanor Boudreau of NPR affiliate WKNO in Memphis spoke this afternoon to the NewsHour’s Rundown blog.

ELEANOR BOUDREAU, WKNO Memphis: These people live along the mighty Mississippi. And a lot of people have lived here for a really long time and there is a sense of acceptance. A lot of people I have talked to have said something like, you know, it’s Mother Nature. You can’t fight it. You know, what — what are you going to do? You just have to wait it out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Concern over Mother Nature’s toll, in fact, stretched from southern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico.

Downstream in Louisiana, authorities have opened flood gates at drainage channels to take pressure off levees. Inmates were also being moved from the Angola state penitentiary near Baton Rouge. Some were removed, others shifted to less vulnerable buildings nearby.

With preparations under way, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal urged the public to use caution.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL, R-La.: In many parts of the state, they’re warning folks to stay away from the levees, to stay away from the operations, to — to fortify those levees. And so I know there’s a lot of curiosity. And I know folks are tempted to drive their vehicles up to the levees. Again, I would strongly, strongly encourage our residents follow the guidance of your local law enforcement officials. Just like we say during hurricanes, hope for the best; prepare for the worst.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taken altogether, events of the last days have brought back memories of the Great Flood of 1927, which left numerous areas along the Mississippi devastated and killed hundreds of people.

JOHN BARRY, “Rising Tide”: This is the second greatest flood in history. ‘27 would rank first, and then comes this. This is going to test the system.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last week, flood worries prompted the U.S. government to blast a two-mile hole in a Missouri levee in an effort to save the city of Cairo, Ill., from disastrous flooding. Even after tonight’s expected crest in Memphis, floodwaters are expected to linger for days.

And authorities say they will keep monitoring the Mississippi’s movement as high waters push downstream over the next week or two.

This afternoon, President Obama signed a disaster declaration for Tennessee and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the area.

And we’re joined now from Memphis by that city’s mayor, A C Wharton.

Mayor Wharton, thank you for joining us.

What’s the latest in the terms of the river cresting? Do you have an update for us?

A C WHARTON, mayor of Memphis, Tenn.: The reading I received at 3:00 p.m. was 47.82, just under 48-feet, which is the expected crest. That’s the absolute latest we have had.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, things are clearly moving faster than anticipated. Have — have you been able to keep up in terms of alerting citizens?

A C WHARTON: Yes, we have.

We were not waiting on the readings from the Corps of Engineers. We’re preparing for even greater than 48-feet. So, we will be prepared even if it goes beyond that. We have acted all along as if it were right at 49 or 50-feet.

So we’re notifying. We’re doing what we call windshield surveys. We’re doing TV, radio and actual door-to-door. So, everybody will be notified. Hopefully, they will get out on their own, if necessary, from the low-lying areas. But, if not, we will be prepared to — to give them assistance and get them to safety.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned the door-to-door. We mentioned in our piece the comparison and learning from Katrina where too much emphasis was on, I think, TV notification, TV warning. You feel like you’re learning from that?

A C WHARTON: Oh, yes.

You see, we took in a number of the evacuees from Katrina. We learned from them firsthand, and also from Gustav. The — everything that happens down that way, we’re one of the first cities the folks seek — in which they seek shelter. So, we know that, too often, those of us in government assume everybody has a www-dot in their homes, when, in places like Memphis, where we do have an unacceptably high level of poverty, folks don’t have access to that.

So, we’re going — we’re going to door-to-door. The bottom line-answer to your question is, yes, we have learned first-handedly that you have to use the old-fashioned way of getting to folks and getting them out of harm’s way. And we’re doing that 24/7.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well — well, so, what areas are being affected now? I gather that the biggest problem isn’t right on the Mississippi River front, but on all these tributaries in and around the cities that are — where all the water is backed up. What areas are being hit, and how populated are they?

A C WHARTON: That’s great; I’m glad you mentioned that. Everybody is focusing on the mighty Mississippi, and that’s fine, but what we have in Memphis, we have a flooding from west to east.

Ordinarily, flooding occurs here when the tributaries, specifically the Wolf River, which is a major river, and the Loosahatchie, another major river, and then we have a creek which is almost like a river called the Nonconnah. Now, all of those run through very low-lying, heavily populated areas. They are not downtown.

So, those are some of the areas where the greatest potential for harm is. And that’s what we’re focusing on. Down on the Mississippi, yes, on the river right downtown, there are some residential flooding possibilities. We’re taking care of that.

We’re also taking care of those other areas. So, the Mississippi is important, but we have got to watch the Nonconnah, the Loosahatchie, and the Wolf. And we’re doing that. We’re going to get everybody out of — out of harm’s way.

I might add — and I want everybody to hear this — Memphis is open for business. We will play, the Grizzlies — the Grizzlies will play Oklahoma City Sunday tonight. And, by the way, they will win that game.

(LAUGHTER)

A C WHARTON: And we’re — we’re open for business.

Beale Street is still ticking. Downtown is open. Hotels are open. So, come on to Memphis. The airport is still open, everything. I want everybody to know that we are not closed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you heard — you heard it here first, the basketball score for tonight, right?

But — but even…

A C WHARTON: No, let me make…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, go ahead.

A C WHARTON: This city, I might point out, is 345 square miles. It’s much larger than most folks think.

What happens is we have at most 25 square miles underwater. But when you take an aerial shot, those who don’t know how large the city is will say, gee whiz, that city is covered up.

That is — is simply not the case. Memphis is wide-open. The areas that are underwater, for the most part, are agricultural areas, industrial areas. So, this city is wide-open.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, briefly, mayor, no matter what happens tonight, you’re going to be dealing with this for, it sounds like, days and weeks. Going to have a lot of high water around.

A C WHARTON: That’s the other thing. There’s this — this idea that, whenever the crest is, whether it’s at 11:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, that bells and whistles will blow and everything will be over. That simply is not the case.

As a matter of fact, some of the most dangerous times are as the waters begin to recede. We may have roadways that might give way or something. So, no, we will not be out of danger simply because the river crests tonight or early tomorrow morning, whenever that point in time may be. Some of the most dangerous times will be as — after the crest is reached. So, we will be on alert for a long, long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, mayor A.C. Wharton of Memphis, thanks very much. And good luck to you and the city.

A C WHARTON: Thanks for letting me join you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to some of the key decisions on dealing with the flooding, the waterways, and the levees.

Steve Stockton is the director of Civil Works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

And welcome to you.

We just heard from the mayor. What is happening, as far as you know, with the levees in and around Memphis?

STEVE STOCKTON, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Well, let me start off by saying our number-one priority is protecting public lives.

And we do that by managing a very large, complex system, not only downstream, but with reservoirs upstream in the upper watershed to capture the flood flows. In Memphis — I think the mayor was exactly correct — we’re getting backwater flooding into unprotected areas. But the mainline levees and flood walls are being monitored very closely by local, state and federal flood emergency management officials.

And so, it looks like the system is performing very well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, downstream, the decision was made today to open a spillway north of New Orleans to divert water away from city. Tell us about what goes into that decision. Why did you do it?

STEVE STOCKTON: Everything we do is pre-scripted.

Basically, the 1927 or — excuse me — 1928 Flood Control Act authorized the Mississippi River and tributaries system. What that is, it is a complex system of levees, floodways, flood gates to really manage these historic flows that we’re experiencing from the upper watershed.

So, in combination with managing the flows downstream, we also have reservoirs upstream, where we store a lot of — a lot of the flows in order to be able to store them and then release them after the crest has passed.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, it’s pre-scripted, because it’s interesting because we keep — this is historic. And I — I mean, I saw a quote from your Mississippi Valley Division commander today saying, it’s testing the system like never before.

So, this is a system that’s been in place for a long time but never quite faced anything like this.

STEVE STOCKTON: Yes. I think the system is designed to withstand about a — six times the normal average precipitation in the upper basin. We have experienced over a two-week period about eight times what the average precipitation is. So, this truly is an historic event.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how confident are you, therefore, about the system being up-to-date, being able to go handle something of this nature?

STEVE STOCKTON: I feel very confident. It’s — we’re monitoring it very closely. It’s performing as designed. We’re going through a — these pre-scripted missions of, you know, first opening the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway to relieve the pressure there.

And that — that wasn’t just to protect Cairo. That was to protect the integrity of the system, so we didn’t have uncontrolled breaches at every point — other points within the system.

We will then go down. We’re opening Bonnet Carre Spillway north of New Orleans today. We’re managing flows through the Old River Control Complex. And then, if needed, if we have the right flow conditions or the certain trigger points, we will open additional floodways into the Atchafalaya River.

JEFFREY BROWN: But each of these decisions involves an important tradeoff, right? And you took — there were a lot of farmers after the first step last week that were very unhappy that this decision to protect Cairo and other areas has an impact on tens of thousands of acres of farmland.

STEVE STOCKTON: That’s really part of the design of the system.

By having the ability to open up that floodway and not lose control of the system, we have acquired easements for those — most of the lands within that floodway. And it’s — we have — we have allowed it to be productively used for the last 74 years. The last time this spillway at New Madrid was open was 1937.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, so they’re — so they — so, you’re saying the people, the farmers there, they should know what’s coming because they agreed to this?

STEVE STOCKTON: Yes. I mean we have flowage easement over their property and have had that in place since the 1930s and ’40s.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is the biggest worry right now, as we sit here?

STEVE STOCKTON: Well, the biggest worry right now is that we don’t get additional precipitation. As we manage the flood crests as they move downstream, we’re monitoring gauge levels, as well as flow levels, very, very closely.

And if it reaches certain trigger points, we may have to take additional measures to divert flows away from the Mississippi into these other floodways to constrain the flows in New Orleans and vicinity to about 1.25 million cubic feet per second, which is kind of the — the — basically the top of the system.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and, of course, finally, after Katrina, it was the aftermath. It wasn’t the initial flooding, but it was the leakage and the levees not holding. This is a slow-moving problem as well, right?

Is there a possibility, as I just asked the mayor, that it is after the cresting, where there’s so much water pushing on those walls and levees?

STEVE STOCKTON: Yes, we’re — we’re going to be monitoring the system, not only during the event, but as we release stored water from upstream. The river levels are going to remain high for weeks.

And we’re going to monitor the system very, very closely. Once the system comes down, we will be doing in and — coming in and evaluating levee performance, system performance, and evaluate, you know, what went right, what — what damages were sustained by the system and what we need to do differently to modify it in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. All right.

Steve Stockton of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, thanks very much.

STEVE STOCKTON: Great. Thank you very much, Jeff.