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Saving Louisiana by Temporarily Drowning Some of It
May 14, 2011 11:35 PM   Subscribe

The opening of the Morganza spillway on May 14 by the U.S. Corps of Engineers is not only a tacit admission of the severity of the river control problems the spring 2011 flood of the Mississippi River is creating, but also one of the last remaining measures the Corps has for protecting the Old River Control Structure, which has prevented the Mississippi from naturally diverting its main channel through the shorter, steeper Atchafalaya River channel, since construction of the control structure in the late 1960's. If the Old River Control Structure fails (as it nearly did in the 1973 floods), or the river overwhelms other nearby levees north or south of the Morganza spillway/ORCS, the main channel of the Mississippi could suddenly shift westward by about 100 miles, bypassing New Orleans and the current lower delta, with severe long term effects for the U.S. economy.

John McPhee's excellent 1987 New Yorker article "The Control of Nature: Atchafalaya" describes the early history of the ORCS project, some of the repairs and lessons learned as a result of the 1973 flood damage, and the conflicting cultural and economic demands the Old River Control Structure tries to serve. (tl;dr warning: 27 page article, single page format link).
posted by paulsc (148 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

 
OMG I have been crafting a post about this for DAYS. *facepalm*
posted by nile_red at 11:48 PM on May 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Seems like unprecedented floods are happening pretty frequently over the past few years.
posted by delmoi at 11:49 PM on May 14, 2011


flood forecast map if morganza weren't opened
posted by nile_red at 11:51 PM on May 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


"It's hard to plan for a multi-100-year event," he said.

These 100-year events are calculated based on any given year there being a 1 in 100 chance of the event happening, not the event only happening every 100 years. Thus 100 year events could happen many times in a 100 year period, statistically. So they should have planned better, but gambled to save money since they knew tax payers would pick up the bill and not understand statistics.
posted by stbalbach at 11:55 PM on May 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


"OMG I have been crafting a post about this for DAYS. *facepalm*
posted by nile_red at 2:48 AM on May 15

I hope you'll post any links you've collected as comments, nile_red. This is such a complex, sprawling story, that it is really hard, I think, for average people to understand. I think we've gotten "used" to TV news footage of flooding, but the whole idea of a big river like the Mississippi suddenly moving its main channel a hundred or more miles west, in a flood event of greater than 100-year projections, is just too big for TV to present well.
posted by paulsc at 11:58 PM on May 14, 2011 [10 favorites]


That McPhee article is a great example of how damn good McPhee can be.

Which might explain why it is currently listed as both the most popular and most e-mailed article as the New Yorker site.

I loved The Control of Nature book, too.
posted by dglynn at 12:02 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


[sorry to spam, I'll just drop this here]

You'll be hearing a lot that this flood is/will be/would have been worse than the flood of 1927, which was previously the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, referenced in music of the time and connected to the great migration.

(There was a whole set of links I had about poor areas vs. wealthy areas: who gets flooded and who is saved by opening spillways...there are a LOT of insane and not so insane conspiracy theories there, but a computer crash killed them, and I haven't re-found them yet...and I don't want to spam the post anymore)
posted by nile_red at 12:07 AM on May 15, 2011 [14 favorites]


I'm looking forward to some really awesome Youtube footage of this. I mean when it finally goes and Old Man River finds a new route to the sea, I am going to be mightily disappointed if their isn't some A-grade bigscreen tv level disaster porn.
posted by happyroach at 12:12 AM on May 15, 2011


previous floods
posted by nile_red at 12:15 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I take it if the Mississippi changes its course, this is permanent, beyond a scale we can do anything about?
posted by maxwelton at 12:23 AM on May 15, 2011


nile_red, it's definitely not spamming if it's adding interesting depth to the discussion.

On the news here tonight a journalist asked the representative of the Corps whether residents would be compensated for the loss of their homes in the flooding. He gave the world's most blatant non-answer (I'd link it but I don't even know what to search for having only half-watched the segment). I think his answer was to the effect of "The people living in those areas know their homes are at risk of flooding. Federal and State agencies are working together on managing the flooding. kthxbi." Which was quite probably a no, and maybe even a big old "fuck 'em".
posted by tracicle at 12:23 AM on May 15, 2011


Jeff Masters of Weather Underground has a great blog post about this.

The decision to control the Mississippi is doomed to fail, if not in the next few weeks, then at some point in the future. This isn't really a debatable point. (IANAL, but I am a geologist.)

So, the sensible solution is to use river control structures to delay the inevitable, so that there is the time to relocate infrastructure to the Atchafalaya. This will be expensive, but not as mind-numbingly expensive as doing it after a catastrophic shift of the Mississippi outlet. This is a HUGE undertaking, as it involves moving massive port infrastructure, lots of chemical plants, etc etc, but it will eventually have to be done anyway!

The problem with this (much like climate change) is that there is no incentive to take expensive action with a consequence that could be out of your lifetime (or least outside of the tenure of your career).
posted by grajohnt at 12:24 AM on May 15, 2011 [13 favorites]


Grrr...I swear that was OK on preview.
posted by grajohnt at 12:26 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Interesting historical trivia: The first official study of Mississippi River flooding in 1852 criticized the burgeoning levee system as part of the problem, however USACE ignored the report.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:32 AM on May 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


"We estimate that every home built on the river side of the levee from Memphis all the way to the Louisiana line is flooded,"

WTF? Can someone explain this? Who builds between a river and a levee?!
posted by c13 at 12:35 AM on May 15, 2011


"I take it if the Mississippi changes its course, this is permanent, beyond a scale we can do anything about?"
posted by maxwelton at 3:23 AM on May 15

I'm no river engineer, but I suppose there are some who would undertake to force the river back into its current channel, after a natural diversion, if enough money could be thrown at the effort. But, whew! What a hit to the national economy would still ensue! The Port of New Orleans, and the associated petrochemical and industrial installations that would be left essentially "high and dry" by a new river channel have a value easily, I think, in the hundreds of billions of dollars. All essentially useless, without a navigable river channel nearby, not 100 miles to the west, for any length of time...

Hence, grajohnt's link, arguing for "planned" diversion of the channel, on human time scale and terms. Problem is, the water is coming, Real Soon Now.
posted by paulsc at 12:35 AM on May 15, 2011


It's amazing how expensive it is for the American taxpayer to keep New Orleans above water.

It's like an well-worn 1950 Buick Roadmaster that your grandparents took to prom and you still like to drive, but it breaks down every 3000 miles and really you end up talking about driving it more than you sit behind the wheel.

But I guess when your only other options are a 1999 Cadillac CTS or the 2009 Ford Fiesta, it's worth the anxiety riddled Saturdays, which you drink away anyway because the car's in the shop again and your friends will be coming over soon to go for a drive. They'll understand.
posted by four panels at 12:39 AM on May 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


This is the same flooding as from the Cairo thread.

Some locals have known about the coming flood for weeks now...others literally have no idea it's coming for them. This is surreal because it isn't a flash flood, you don't really see the water move, so you think it's slow. . . but areas I could get to two days ago are impassable. Fields that looked fine and dry and surrounded by levees are now lakes. We haven't reached peak stage, and my aunt in Metairie didn't know until I called her.

People in the path of this have been told to leave their houses as if they weren't coming back. Some have built their own levees...they're farmers with farm equipment. Others have moved mobile homes. Some folks went to relatives and some have actually built walls around their houses and decided to try to wait it out inside.

Governor Haley Barbour's house in Yazoo may flood. and he is catching heat for what some people think is cavalier treatment of the situation. Others say that his remarks are tough but fair - with at least two weeks warning, you should have plenty of time to get out, and he did ask for aid well in advance...

There is a disconnect (in my town at least) between people who are able to move from their houses and people who aren't. Folks that use the weekends to do this and folks who take off from work.

Aside from all this, people who live in extremely small outlying towns may not have access to the city in which they work for a week.

For the farmers...some crops were just able to be harvested (mostly wheat) but others (corn, soybeans) were just planted and will be lost. Catfish wash out of catfish ponds. Farmers may be insured, but they have to have planted to file for the loss of the crop, which has left some farmers in our area packing their houses, harvesting crops, and racing to plant crops before the floods come.
posted by nile_red at 12:41 AM on May 15, 2011 [26 favorites]


c13 - I'm not sure about everywhere else, but here it's poorer families and farmers.
posted by nile_red at 12:43 AM on May 15, 2011


"WTF? Can someone explain this? Who builds between a river and a levee?!"
posted by c13 at 3:35 AM on May 15

Folks who could afford to, and who were protected by National Flood Insurance. Of course, now that the program is $18 billion in the red, and facing massive new claims, it is basically the U.S. taxpayer on the hook for whatever flood losses occur to insured structures in these areas, now. At least, as I understand the current state of the program.
posted by paulsc at 12:43 AM on May 15, 2011


The levee system is not the only effed up thing we do to the MS river in Louisiana. There's also MR GO...which was fixed in 2009...sortof.

last link is a pdf
posted by nile_red at 12:48 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Who builds between a river and a levee?

Lots of people. And many more live in areas that they think of as "protected" by levees that were designed to old standards, weren't built well, and aren't able to handle changing hydrologic conditions caused by global warming or upstream land use changes.

Like anything other form of public infrastructure, levees take huge and continued investments to maintain and improve, which the US has been unwilling to spend for some decades now. Maybe worse, they solve the problem of smaller, routine floods but increase the risk of catastrophic failures -- as we are now seeing in this case -- because leveed rivers lose all floodplain connectivity and natural mitigation.
posted by Forktine at 12:51 AM on May 15, 2011


But how was it thag they were allowed to build there, and more than that, were actually insured? Mind boggles. First we have a story about a nuclear piwer plant built below stones hundreds years old warning not to build anything lower for the danger of tsunamis. Oh, and the emergency generators that would provide power to the station in the event of a tsunami were built in a ditch. Now we got all those people flooded who built their houses between a river and a wall designed to contain it. And they are insured!

I need another drink..
posted by c13 at 12:54 AM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh hey, the floods might cause a huge earthquake...


@c13 maybe not another drink? nuclear piwar plant? (I kid)

It's not always: |river| ------50-200 feet------/levee\

Some places...it's very flat. You don't see the levee, you don't see the river...they are far away from you. It's great farmland. It only floods every....ok, well, a lot of the time, maybe every 20 years or so, but this one is the biggest in 84 years.
posted by nile_red at 1:01 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Now we got all those people flooded who built their houses between a river and a wall designed to contain it. And they are insured!

History is full of people who take immediate food and shelter over potential long term risk any day.

The land is also extremely fertile (flood plains!), and probably cheap comparitively, so poor folks move there because its the only place they can make a living and they don't have much in the way of means to learn something better.
posted by mrzarquon at 1:05 AM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


WTF? Can someone explain this? Who builds between a river and a levee?!

Rich folk.

Who expect the evil socialist gubmint to bail them out.
posted by orthogonality at 1:14 AM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Between Katrina and these floods, I wonder why Louisiana seems to be so disaster-prone.

Then I read McPhee's article:
Land was not cheap—forty acres cost three thousand dollars—but so great was the demand for riverfront plantations that by 1828 the levees in southern Louisiana were continuous, the river artificially confined. Just in case the levees should fail, some plantation houses—among their fields of sugarcane, their long bright rows of oranges—were built on Indian burial mounds.

Oh.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:14 AM on May 15, 2011 [21 favorites]


@four panels: Aside from the usual "oh the culture" point, New Orleans is actually quite important. It's not just any other (fungible city example here). It's an important port, refinery, producer of cash crops (cotton, sugarcane, etc), important to the fishing industry, producing natural gas, salt (yes salt), and possibly most important...the main port for importing coffee to the US.
posted by nile_red at 1:14 AM on May 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


Flood Tide? Clive Cussler plots are turning into reality? Next you'll be telling me about the secret society to destroy evidence of Pre-Columbian contact between Europe and the Americas or that Roman legion in Texas or the Mongol ship in the Hawaiian Islands or the knife fight on the moon.

(it sucks that this is happening to the lower Mississippi but I really would like to live to see a knife fight on the moon)
posted by Earthtopus at 1:20 AM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


so poor folks move there because its the only place they can make a living and they don't have much in the way of means ...


Rich folk

Heh...I see:)
posted by c13 at 1:23 AM on May 15, 2011


@c13 I think it's different in different places...the MS river system is something like 2,300 miles long...passing through major cities and vast farmlands...
posted by nile_red at 1:29 AM on May 15, 2011


I still don't understand. We have old, failing infrastructure. Bridges that fail down, aging schoolhouses, and, apparently now, ports that will soon be obsolete.

And we had until recently, 10% unemployment that was really closer to 20%.

And our collective response to this was to bail out a bunch of banks that made criminal and criminally stupid investments, and to lower taxes on the rich.

Why the Hell didn't Obama, Pelosi, and Reid say to the American people,
There's a job for anyone who wants one, rebuilding America.

Yes, America, part of the cost of this will be born by our grandchildren and generations yet unborn -- but that's OK, because it will our grandchildren who will benefit for years to come from the work that we will do today and tomorrow. Yes, our grandchildren who will benefit from being born in a refreshed, renews, rebuilt America, will gladly pay their part of the cost of building it.

Because with the benefit of being American, comes the cost. That's only fair. Nothing in life is free, and the greatness that is America and will be our America future, isn't free. Which is why the American who have benefited the most today from our freedoms, our power, and our infrastruture, will also fair their fair share.

Anyone who is wealthy in this country, whether Rockefellers or Texas oil barons or immigrants like Sergey Brin, who came here form Russia to study at one of our great universities and who couldn't have built Google in any country but America -- any one of these wealthy people is only wealthy because he got into the Great Head Start of being an American.

Anyone who is wealthy here is wealthy because of of the tremendous, continent-wide infrastructure -- that's a big word that means roads, bridges, waterway, ports, railroads, power lines and telephone wires -- that we the people, free and slave, immigrant and native-born -- built for our common use.

And so the rich, who have benefited so much from our infrastructure will also pay their fair share -- not as a punishment for the hard work they did to build their business, no, but to ensure that they, and future entrepreneurs, can continue to Make It In America.

So we will allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for the richest American, those making over a quarter of a million dollars a year. When these tax cuts were passed, we were promised by the Republicans they'd create jobs and that they'd end in 2010. The jobs we were promised never materialized -- maybe they were offshored --, but we Democrats will keep the promises the Republicans failed to keep. We will end these tax refunds for the richest American, while extending them for everyone else.

And we will use the money saved to create jobs -- not for welfare, not for make-work bureaucracy --, but to build or rebuild the real things America must have to remain great: our bridges, our roads, our, yes, high speed rail, our ports and our waterways.

So if you're out of a job, and if you're not afraid of hard work, and you want to contribute to your country's future while earning a paycheck: I urge you to come to work. Starting tomorrow, you'll be able to sign up for the New Civilian Construction Corps online or at any US Post Office. And you'll get your first paycheck next week. Until you're actually assigned a job, your paycheck will be the equal to the unemployment check you're currently getting.

Starting next month, we'll be building a new Port of Mississippi, in Morgan City Louisiana. Starting next month, we will be rebuilding America and making our great country even greater, for us, for our children, and our children's children. God Bless America.
posted by orthogonality at 1:59 AM on May 15, 2011 [103 favorites]


Starting next month, we will be rebuilding America and making our great country even greater, for us, for our children, and our children's children. God Bless America.

So, by next month, will we have enough skilled workers who can do it?

posted by nile_red at 2:09 AM on May 15, 2011


What the Flooding Mississippi Means for America's Dinner

The map captures the ever-changing course of America's defining river over time. One of the more poetic descriptions of the river delta comes from John McPhee in his essay "Atchafalaya" from The Control of Nature:

The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel.... Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient.
Map via NPR's Krulwich Wonders as adapted from Harold Fisk's 1944 Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (via Pruned).
posted by netbros at 2:29 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Few people in their right mind are ready to go near a shovel and the enviroment that it entails. It goes without mentioning most of those jobs pay crap... kiss the mortgage goodbye, and no college for the kids either.

Ah, but the office talk about backing the bonds, being a planner, or doing any form of the paper money part. Oh the water fountain excitement! Actual work? We may as well follow the Dubai Towers model; and import labourers.
posted by buzzman at 2:49 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are TONS of flickr* pictures worth looking through...but I haven't seen many pictures of the animals. We've had herds of wild boar, deer, and flocks of birds suddenly roaming areas where they aren't usually. There's a LOT more roadkill around. Animals are getting penned in by the water and some (the boars especially) are being put down by Fisheries and Wildlife (or property owners)

*caveat: I do have an account, but it's not linked above
posted by nile_red at 3:03 AM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


So, the sensible solution is to use river control structures to delay the inevitable, so that there is the time to relocate infrastructure to the Atchafalaya.

Speaking of infrastructure, I would like to know more about this Waterford nuclear plant that may be in the path of the flooding intentionally created by opening the Morganza Spillway. For instance, are its backup generators in a ditch?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:35 AM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Kirth Gerson: In fact, the opening of the Morganza Floodway does exactly the opposite. The Waterford nuclear plant is in St. Charles parish, which is one of the areas they're trying to protect from the flooding.

Here is a map of the scenario where they DO NOT open the Morganza Floodway

...and here is a map of the scenario when it operates at 50% capacity (more or less what they plan to do).

Warning: 7Mb PDF links

Note that St. Charles parish (just west of New Orleans) should experience significantly less flooding due to the opening of the Morganza spillway. I can't say that it won't affect the nuclear plant, but if you're worried about it, this is a good thing not a bad thing. However, if the river avulses, the current Mississippi course becomes a salt-water estuary, and there may no longer be enough fresh water to cool a nuclear plant in the long run.
posted by grajohnt at 4:28 AM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Waterford nuclear plant is in St. Charles parish, which is one of the areas they're trying to protect from the flooding.

Ah. I was going by the linked Wikipedia article, which has since had the reference to Waterford edited out.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:03 AM on May 15, 2011


Just ignore all this. Private business will jump in and take care of everything. Just the way God meant it to be.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:03 AM on May 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


C13, They call it the batture. A lot of folk who use the river to make a living, live on the Mississippi River batture. Friday night, my wife and I were at Southport Hall for a crawfish boil we walked over the levee to check out the batture. This is at the Jefferson Parish/New Orleans line and the lights in their houses were still on. I have never inquired but, we still don't even know how they're allowed to live there. Maybe they're grandfathered in or something?
posted by winks007 at 5:19 AM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Read about Old River on LongForm a couple weeks ago and I've been thinking about it ever since. I don't think there is a human alive that can comprehend the logistical scope of what needs to be done. I wonder when people start speculating along the Atchafalaya?
posted by Arquimedez Pozo at 5:29 AM on May 15, 2011


Local viewpoint....when standing on the levee at the New Orleans line, the river water is about 7 feet below the top of the levee......bad news, the River road below the levee is at least 20 feet below the top of the levee. Standing there that night really painted a ugly picture for my wife. Seing that difference between the low road the high levee and then, the high river really opened her eyes.

Now the local news agencies and Corps are worrying about that will happen if the water falls too quickly - levee collapses. Dammned if we do and dammned if we don't.
posted by winks007 at 5:42 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"WTF? Can someone explain this? Who builds between a river and a levee?!"

Three types of people, where I am: Wealthy morons who want a riverfront property and then complain bitterly when the ALLUVIAL RIVER THAT FLOODS EVERY YEAR floods them out; folks whose families have lived on the river since kingdom come who keep everything of value on the second floor and have lots of practice sandbagging and not whining; and farmers, because silty bottomland kicks butt.

Around here (on the Illinois, a Mississippi tributary), more and more of the bottomland is being bought up by the Nature Conservancy or state government (for flood control) and turned back into swampland/wetland; by avid hunters (and turned into swampland/wetland) who can get some federal payments for maintaining it in an environmentally-friendly, flood-controlling state, with huntable ducks; and in a few places, corporations that release stuff into the river are paying farmers to "farm" a swamp for them that cycles and cleans the water, since their pollutants get measured X miles downstream. The swamp just sits there being a swamp, but now it's an economically productive swamp.

Don't forget that a sudden change in the Mississippi's outlet won't just economically devastate New Orleans (and Baton Rouge too, I guess), but will disrupt barge shipping throughout the entire system served by the Mississippi and its tributaries ... that is, through the entire breadbasket of America. Say hello to even higher food prices due to shipping disruptions and stress on the non-river infrastructure due to shifting river shipping to overland shipping. (Also surprisingly large quantities of things like rebar are river-shipped ... slow but cheap for very heavy items; doesn't take much fuel as long as you don't want to go very fast.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:05 AM on May 15, 2011 [11 favorites]


The Moat.

Amazing what humans can do. There are many people doing projects similar to this. Since the structures would take work to remove, it's likely that they will become permanent parts of the landscape in the region.
posted by dragonsi55 at 6:08 AM on May 15, 2011 [13 favorites]


It is a shame we don't have some pipelines from the missisippi to let us pump the flood waters elsewhere such as off to West Texas, or perhaps into the Great Lakes, or some way to get more of this water into the high plains aquifer. Seems like such a waste.
posted by humanfont at 6:12 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pump Asian Carp into the Great Lakes? Shirley you're joking.
posted by anthill at 6:38 AM on May 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


"There's a LOT more roadkill around. Animals are getting penned in by the water and some (the boars especially) are being put down by Fisheries and Wildlife (or property owners)"

Why would they be put down, since they can swim? Wouldn't it be better to let the boars (and other wild animals) have a shot at getting to high ground? Or is it because they're getting penned in areas where people are, and they feel like they're a threat?
posted by HopperFan at 6:59 AM on May 15, 2011


Since no one else has mentioned it yet...

nile_red = epony-appropriate?
posted by futz at 7:19 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't it be better to let the boars (and other wild animals) have a shot at getting to high ground?

I don't know about Louisiana, but in Florida, at least, they're considered an invasive, nuisance species and hunters are regularly paid by the state to trap and kill wild boars.
posted by indubitable at 7:24 AM on May 15, 2011


Don't build permanent stuff in a floodplain. That is all.
posted by jfuller at 7:26 AM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the wikipedia article cited in the FPP:

Through human intervention, this [allowing the Mississippi to take its natural course, at any given time] has so far been prevented, but during any major flood the risk of such an event is still present, and the economic and ecological consequences would be extremely beneficial to Louisiana by allowing new deposits of silt onto the Mississippi Delta which has been dying since the channelization of the Mississippi. Existing port facilities may have to be modified, as would Morgan City and many smaller communities. Transportation by road, rail, sea, and barge would all be improved. Subsidence, Sedimentation and erosion patterns would change to a more natural state, including development of a new river channel and rebuilding of the delta, as well as a new pattern of floodplains. Changes to salinity of coastal waters (less saline near new delta, more saline near present delta) would improve marine life, fisheries, beaches, and coastal marshes, as well as submerged infrastructure.

OK I am confused. This paragraph seems to say that if the Corps allows the river to defeat whatever controls have been put in place during recent decades, then over all, it would be a better deal for everyone, albeit with some adjustments.
posted by Danf at 7:28 AM on May 15, 2011


This paragraph seems to say that if the Corps allows the river to defeat whatever controls have been put in place during recent decades, then over all, it would be a better deal for everyone, albeit with some adjustments.

You'll note that paragraph doesn't actually cite any sources. The three 'citations' are broken (scroll down to the citation section of the article; all three are big red warnings rather than links).
posted by jedicus at 7:45 AM on May 15, 2011


we'll be building a new Port of Mississippi, in Morgan City Louisiana

Brilliant. There is no getting around building on flood plains in Southeast Louisiana, or anywhere near the Gulf or the River, for cryin' out loud, but you need a port there. (And please note that there is 90 miles of infrastructure on the Lower Miss., from the Miss. River Delta on.)

Meanwhile, areas near Yazoo City are not getting flooded by this spillway opening. It sits at the edge of the other Mississippi Delta, between two and three hours away from Morganza, and is being flooded via backwater flooding from the Yazoo via the Mississippi.
posted by raysmj at 7:49 AM on May 15, 2011


Danf: and if I wanted to, I could make it say that if the Corps allowed the Mississippi to defeat its controls, it would cause an unholy tide of women wearing trousers, disobedient children, devil music, and the physical destruction of the entire universe. All part of the fun of wikipedia.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:52 AM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


"The Mississippi is remarkable in still another way--
its disposition to make prodigious jumps by cutting through narrow
necks of land, and thus straightening and shortening itself.
More than once it has shortened itself thirty miles at
a single jump! These cut-offs have had curious effects:
they have thrown several river towns out into the rural districts,
and built up sand bars and forests in front of them.
The town of Delta used to be three miles below Vicksburg:
a recent cutoff has radically changed the position, and Delta is now TWO
MILES ABOVE Vicksburg.

Both of these river towns have been retired to the country by that
cut-off. A cut-off plays havoc with boundary lines and jurisdictions:
for instance, a man is living in the State of Mississippi to-day,
a cut-off occurs to-night, and to-morrow the man finds himself
and his land over on the other side of the river, within the
boundaries and subject to the laws of the State of Louisiana!
Such a thing, happening in the upper river in the old times,
could have transferred a slave from Missouri to Illinois and made
a free man of him."

- from Mark Twain's _Life on the Mississippi_, Chapter 1
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:57 AM on May 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America is a great read. Here's an NPR interview with the author John Barry done during Katrina.

Here's a recent video interview with Barry.
posted by warbaby at 8:02 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also note, it's no more arrogant to try to contain the River as it stands now than it would be to build port infrastructure exactly where things are on the Atchafalaya, as if you know how things would shake out. There's not even a guarantee that if the river does turn, that it will do so at the Old River Control Structure.
posted by raysmj at 8:06 AM on May 15, 2011


I'm going to be that guy and say that it infuriates me when I read about people like Barbour requesting federal aid. He was getting ready to run for president on a platform of lowering taxes and starving the beast and saying that the federal government needs to be shrunk to as small as possible.

I feel terrible for all the people who are living through this horrible flood. I just with that those in charge in that area weren't such two-faced bastards when it comes to what they want the government to be.
posted by hippybear at 8:33 AM on May 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


Yeah, if y'all could just send some of that water over here to Texas, we'd appreciate it. We got our first heavy rain this week since LAST JUNE.
posted by threeturtles at 8:36 AM on May 15, 2011


Here's a detail of Fisk's beautiful map of the meanders of the Mississippi.
posted by Nelson at 8:42 AM on May 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Fantastic post, thank you.

I will say I mighty tired of "but why would people live in [place that floods/has tornadoes/earthquakes/etc." in threads like this. Especially when it comes to flood-prone areas: people live there because that's where humans have picked to live, across most continents, since we fell out of the trees and started farming.
posted by rtha at 8:45 AM on May 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


"... There's not even a guarantee that if the river does turn, that it will do so at the Old River Control Structure."
posted by raysmj at 11:06 AM on May 15

It's true that there is no guarantee that a channel change would occur exactly at ORCS, but, perversely, ORCS is something of an intentional weak point. The levees above and below ORCS and the Morganza spillway are also key structures in trying to control this flood in the coming days. However, ORCS regularly allows as much as 30% of the main Mississippi flow into the Atchafalaya channel, and has been running at Design Flood levels for several days already, which is a level of flow that creates tremendous turbulence, by design, on the Atchafalaya side of the ORCS. It's that constant, tremendous pounding of turbulent water, and possibly, associated river trash drawn in to ORCS by high flow rates, that could really damage the structures there, as they did to the Lower Sill structure in 1973. As Jeff Masters posted on his blog (linked originally in this thread above by grajohnt) on May 13:
"... According to the latest information from the Army Corps the Old River Control Structure is currently passing 624,000 cubic feet per second of water, which is 1% beyond what is intended in a maximum "Project Flood." The flow rate of the Mississippi at New Orleans is at 100% of the maximum Project Flood. These are dangerous flow rates, and makes it likely that the Army Corps will open the Morganza Spillway in the next few days to take pressure off of the Old River Control Structure and New Orleans levees. Neither can be allowed to fail. In theory, the Old River Control Structure can be operated at 140% of a Project Flood, since there are now four control structures instead of just the two that existed in 1973 (flows rates of 300,000 cfs, 350,000 cfs, 320,000 cfs, and 170,000 cfs can go through the Low Sill, Auxiliary, Overbank, and Hydroelectric structures, respectively.) Apparently, the Corps is considering this, as evidenced by their Scenario #3 images they posted yesterday. This is a risky proposition, as the Old River Control Structure would be pushed to its absolute limit in this scenario. It would seem a lower risk proposition to open the Morganza spillway to divert up to 600,000 cfs, unless there are concerns the Corps has they aren't telling us about. ..."
Even having opened the Morganza spillway, the Corps is not certain of maintaining channel control, by some estimates, simply because the flow through the spillway is bound to draw flood trash and heavy silt loads into the spillway control structures. Weeks of flood flow through the Morganza spillway may well mean that closing it, when the time comes, becomes an engineering reconstruction project itself, because of substantial channel scouring in the main Mississippi channel at the spillway.
posted by paulsc at 8:47 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Related: Manitoba goes ahead with deliberate flooding south of Assiniboine River.

The result is not be a torrent of water, but a slow spreading-out over a wide, flat area, filling in low-lying sections between roadways – somewhat akin to maple syrup covering a waffle.
posted by Urban Hermit at 8:58 AM on May 15, 2011


the main channel of the Mississippi could suddenly shift westward by about 100 miles, bypassing New Orleans and the current lower delta,

Another article on this: Could flooding move the Mississippi? The Army Corps of Engineers have been preparing for it for years. But they may not be able to stop nature's course
posted by homunculus at 8:59 AM on May 15, 2011


Here is a detail background with lots of pictures, maps and diagrams explaining how the importance of the ORCS and generally how the flood control system on the lower Mississippi works. From Loyola university NewOrleans and America's Wetland.


And for those who luvs the google maps: here's a projected map of the possible river course change. The author of the map is projecting the new course with the red line on the left of the image.
posted by zenon at 9:00 AM on May 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


paulsc: Could also have noted, the river, to my understanding, would be of the rampaging variety for years to come, would require rebuilding an I-10 and US 90 (and thus affect shipping via truck, not just), which is four-laned and Interstate-like all the way to Lafayette from New Orleans, with Morgan City (which would probably be wiped out) in between. There would also be major adverse effects on rail freight.

c13: The people who live on the dozen homes left on the batture at the Jeff Parish line are cool with the Mississippi doing its thing, that's life, etc., or so the Times-Pic reports. If there were a break on the Miss. somewhere on the East Bank, meanwhile, and it didn't hit close to their homes, the batture properties would almost certainly hold up better than most around. There were once dozens of properties up there, apparently, was a favorite of squatters, NOT the region's wealthy people (although there's a kinda swanky place up there now, filled with folk art, residence of the French Quarter Fest's chief).
posted by raysmj at 9:08 AM on May 15, 2011


WTF? Can someone explain this? Who builds between a river and a levee?!

“It’s where we was raised. Where my daddy was raised. Where we make our living,” [Russell Melancon] said. “Why you are here is something you never even think about. You are this place.”
posted by kevin-o at 9:23 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


from that WU blog post that grajohnt mentioned:

The flood of 1973: Old River Control Structure almost fails
For the first ten years after completion of the Old River Control Structure, no major floods tested it, leading the Army Corps to declare, "We harnessed it, straightened it, regularized it, shackled it." But in 1973, a series of heavy snowstorms in the Upper Midwest was followed by exceptionally heavy spring rains in the South.

Headsmack.
Sound familiar?

The description of the near-failure of the ORCS is terrifying!
posted by entropone at 9:31 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is a shame we don't have some pipelines from the missisippi to let us pump the flood waters elsewhere such as off to West Texas, or perhaps into the Great Lakes, or some way to get more of this water into the high plains aquifer. Seems like such a waste.

I don't think you truly understand the scale of the Mississippi river. The volumes of water we're talking about here are tremendous. I'm not saying anything is impossible, but the costs would be astronomical.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:37 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Danf: and if I wanted to, I could make it say that if the Corps allowed the Mississippi to defeat its controls, it would cause an unholy tide of women wearing trousers, disobedient children, devil music, and the physical destruction of the entire universe. All part of the fun of wikipedia.

Gotcha. I have never been there, and have no sense of place, about Louisiana. Just trying to understand the landscape, and its relation to water.

Although an unholy tide of women wearing trousers might not be bad, or, really, out of the norm for my part of the world.
posted by Danf at 9:41 AM on May 15, 2011


I don't think you truly understand the scale of the Mississippi river. The volumes of water we're talking about here are tremendous. I'm not saying anything is impossible, but the costs would be astronomical.

In one of the links there was a comment about how the rate of flow at ORCS was around 20x the rate of Niagara Falls.
posted by entropone at 9:52 AM on May 15, 2011


humanfont: "It is a shame we don't have some pipelines from the missisippi to let us pump the flood waters elsewhere such as off to West Texas, or perhaps into the Great Lakes, or some way to get more of this water into the high plains aquifer. Seems like such a waste."

This is a teachable moment for humanity, and I don't think the lesson is, "let's fuck with mother nature even more than we already have."
posted by klanawa at 9:55 AM on May 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


USACE New Orleans District, Daily Stage & Discharge Data

May 15, 2011
Latitude Discharge (cfs) 2,153,000
24-Hour Change (+37,000)


About 67 Thousand Tons per second.
posted by dragonsi55 at 10:10 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


since we fell out of the trees and started farming.

There was a mighty long time between those two things, during which our habitats were as peripatetic as our prey species' migration patterns, and our nascent societies much more universally capable of moving into new territory relatively quickly even where other humans (or hominids or indeed any other predators) were already exploiting the local food sources (unfortunately, the advent of warfare surely precedes that of agriculture).

On balance, I think the jury is still out on agriculture. It made everything we know possible. But it's using up everything there is.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:59 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


zenon's links are very helpful in understanding and visualizing what's happening at the ORCS.
posted by stbalbach at 11:00 AM on May 15, 2011


There was a mighty long time between those two things,

Well, my point was that farmers live where their farms are, and good farming land is often in a flood plain. Communities grow up around farms, because farmers need stuff like stores and schools, and transportation to get their crops from fields to, well, those of us who don't live on farms.
posted by rtha at 11:06 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was fascinated by those Fisk 1944 maps of the Mississippi, so I wrote up a blog post about them. I also made a Flickr set of the maps at 2000x2000 or so size. Sheet 13 shows the area where the Atchafalaya and Mississippi almost meet, connected by the Old River.
posted by Nelson at 11:15 AM on May 15, 2011 [10 favorites]


This is a teachable moment for humanity, and I don't think the lesson is, "let's fuck with mother nature even more than we already have."

So you are blaming our suffering on the wrath of a supernatural being. You are right that the is a teachable moment in here.
posted by humanfont at 11:35 AM on May 15, 2011


Thank you for making an FPP about this. I've been trying, but it all hits pretty close to home for me and I just couldn't get it together properly.
posted by tryniti at 11:45 AM on May 15, 2011


So you are blaming our suffering on the wrath of a supernatural being

Metaphor, man, metaphor.

Large rivers behave in predictable, but inconvenient ways. Through their natural erosion and silt deposition processes they inexorably move towards oscillation and change. That is "mother nature" here.
posted by anthill at 11:52 AM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


dragonsi55: The Moat.

That video is definitely amazing. The guys point to the windows and it's clear that having the ground floor maybe 6-10 feet higher would have saved all these houses. It's leads me to wonder the obvious question: how come more houses in these flood plains aren't just built on stilts or raised mounds? It's not like these floods are beyond generational memory (1927, 1951, 1973, 1993). Is it simply due to cost (and risk/benefit) or are there other environmental factors that make that kind of engineering there difficult?
posted by rh at 11:56 AM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Mother nature gonna mother.
posted by clavdivs at 12:00 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


maxwelton writes "I take it if the Mississippi changes its course, this is permanent, beyond a scale we can do anything about?"

Pretty well. It's also inevitable. The Mississippi will change course eventually.

As to "who would live on a flood plain?" I live on a 200 year flood plain for two reasons. It's cheap (my house and property would cost 50-100% more located off the plain though part of that is because of historical class reasons) and in my location with the exception of periodic flooding it's the best land. It is flat, a zone or two or three better than most of the non flood land within an hours drive and it is centrally located. The land has been built up over the years and in the last 20 significant work has been done with permanent levies. Also there is a well rehearsed plan for temporary levees that should handle even 200 year floods.

Acheturually speaking I find flood plain building interesting. Via the use of piles or advanced construction techniques it should be possible to mitigate much of the effects of flooding on residences. Even a 20' differential is something that given modest amounts of money could be managed. We see it here all the time with people building massive 20-30 high retaining walls to built houses on extreme slopes.
posted by Mitheral at 12:10 PM on May 15, 2011


humanfont, your pipeline idea might be workable in a more decentralized way, systems involving more the pipe. No doubt that the priority of Amercans water system will change faster then we may think.

As evidence, though not directly related to the threads thesis, Michigans' (Anglars of the Au Sable) battle with Nestle. Seems 600 the anglars in Michigan won.
posted by clavdivs at 12:15 PM on May 15, 2011


"A system that socialises losses and privatises gains is doomed to mismanage risk."
--Joseph E Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate Economics)

This quote is standard for any natural or man-made disaster these days, when governments bail out private interests, there's little incentive to manage the risks. For example, LA will get billions in federal money so people can re-build along flood plains.
posted by stbalbach at 12:25 PM on May 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Evolution of the Levee System Along the Lower Mississippi River is awesome if you can overlook the pdf-powerpoint presentation.
posted by peeedro at 1:24 PM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


humanfont: "So you are blaming our suffering on the wrath of a supernatural being. You are right that the is a teachable moment in here"

I'll consider my point widely missed.
posted by klanawa at 1:44 PM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Don't build permanent stuff in a floodplain. That is all.
posted by jfuller at 7:26 AM on May 15 [1 favorite +] [!]


and lose the largest port in the nation?

anyway, here's a presentation of Garret Graves, head of LA CPRA, on how the port of south louisiana influences national shipping and trucking. I believe the data are from 1998, but i dont' think a lot has changed since.

To rebuild North America's largest delta, the Army Corps is intentionally building Large Sediment Diversions, and several smaller Freshwater Diversions that will release the river back into the estuary, and fight land loss in the delta, and hopefully be a buffer against the Rising Sea.

you can learn about the land loss here, although the times-picayune downplays the role of the oil and gas industry in the destruction of Louisiana.

Because the river carries most of its sediment on a rising stage, this flood is such a missed opportunity for Louisiana to build land: these diversions have not been built yet (although monies from the BP disaster will help fund their construction as part of reestablishing the ecological productivity of the louisiana marshes and the gulf ecosystem).
posted by eustatic at 1:45 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think people who are perversely cheering for the course shift understand what the shift would mean.

Right now much of the grain we currently export comes down the Mississippi from ports way up the river plus river ports on the Ohio, the Arkansas and Verdigris (aka the McClellan-Kerr), and the Missouri. For that matter, much of the grain we move internally in the US goes via the Mississippi.

No Mississippi, no grain export market, which will create a double economic problem -- higher prices for grain due to transport costs and farmers unable to take advantage of the higher prices due to a lack of transport. And on top of that, other countries that rely on the US for their grain around the world will find themselves without.

So, higher food costs straight away. But worse than that, you'd have the river essentially unnavigable until the reset channel can be figured out. It could take 2 months, it could take 2 years to get shipping working on the river again. And then there's the bridge problem -- the bridges at Morgan City are too low for large ships that now can go all the way to Baton Rouge. So you'd then have to radically expand Morgan City's port in no time flat (made tougher by the town probably having water running through town), or you have to rapidly build new bridges to get the boats all the way to some new port further upriver.

If you can't ship down the Mississippi, then a whole lot of places are going to hurt economically -- not just New Orleans but up the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Arkansas. And the longer it's shut down, the more it will erode US GDP.

There's no soft landing no matter how you do this. A million people in NOLA and Baton Rouge rely on the commerce their ports bring in. If the Mississippi becomes a brackish backwater, two major cities are essentially screwed, and for as long as the disruption of traffic south of the Red River continues, so are all Americans -- and people who rely on American exports like grain.

Either the ORCS holds, or we'll see an economic dislocation rivaling the 2008 collapse, possibly worse.
posted by dw at 1:52 PM on May 15, 2011 [16 favorites]


Evolution of the Levee System Along the Lower Mississippi River is awesome if you can overlook the pdf-powerpoint presentation.
posted by peeedro at 1:24 PM on May 15 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]


thanks!
posted by eustatic at 2:02 PM on May 15, 2011


A question I have for anyone more hydrologically savvy than myself is what would happen to the existing Mississippi channel if the ORCS fails? Will the river go from the existing 70/30 split to 30/70 or something, with the Mississippi being a smaller river? Or will it turn into a standing, marshy, body of water?

Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, there's 2 million residents, and they all draw their water from the Mississippi. The water treatment systems are all designed to take water from the Mississippi -- if there's no water there, then there's nothing to supply water to these cities (until, presumably, pipelines are constructed from the Atchafalaya channel, which isn't exactly a weekend project).

I haven't heard anything about this specific aspect -- am I just worrying over nothing?
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:44 PM on May 15, 2011


This week's Science Friday had a 40 minute piece on engineering the Mississippi River.
posted by bentley at 3:02 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


HopperFan: how far can they swim? and for how long? how long can they go without food? and is it better to let them live a few extra days to wreck the property (especially houses) on the few high ground areas before they go under?

The animals keep getting trapped in islands of high ground, these islands were there 4 days ago, are gone now, and will not reappear for at least a week. You can't see land from the flooded areas unless you're at the edge.
posted by nile_red at 3:43 PM on May 15, 2011


This is a fantastic thread with great and informative links. I've learned a ton. I don't know why this isn't being covered in greater depth in the news. Maybe slow moving floods are boring.
posted by carter at 4:04 PM on May 15, 2011


Visiting the area before it's a memory just jumped several hundred places up my priorities list. I was thinking the oceans would be the end of places like New Orleans as we know them, but over a matter of decades, but now even that timescale looks optimistic.

I'm also reminded that the conical shape of mountains (tiny tip up high, wide base down low) means that a very slight change of average temperature creating a very slight rise in average snowline altitude, results in a drastically non-linear loss of rain being captured as snowpack, so instead of most of the year's rain draining into rivers slowly over the dry months of summer when the rivers can handle it, it hits the rivers all at once, and right when the rivers were already running at capacity.
It seems unlikely that this kind of great flood will be so rare for very munch longer.

I wonder if this will boast tourism? I can't be the only person looking at the writing on the wall and knowing that I want to go to these places while they still resemble themselves.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:51 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


-harlequin- not to mention a very slight change in temperature creating an increase in precipitation, both in the winter and summer..
posted by nile_red at 4:56 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


A question I have for anyone more hydrologically savvy than myself is what would happen to the existing Mississippi channel if the ORCS fails?

The biggest issue that the bed of the Mississippi there is below sea level, and you need a substantial flow to keep fresh water there, something on the order of 100,000 cubic feet per second. If the Mississippi avulses down the Atchafalya, the water at New Orleans and Baton Rouge is likely to turn very brackish.
posted by eriko at 5:26 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"A question I have for anyone more hydrologically savvy than myself is what would happen to the existing Mississippi channel if the ORCS fails? Will the river go from the existing 70/30 split to 30/70 or something, with the Mississippi being a smaller river? Or will it turn into a standing, marshy, body of water? ..."
posted by Homeboy Trouble

Those are all good questions, Homeboy Trouble, but ones without clear answers at the moment. A lot would depend on exactly how, where and when particular problems come up at ORCS, which is actually now 4 separate control structures, including a hydroelectric generation plant built in the 1990s, the Lower Sill diversion (which is the structure most damaged and repaired after the 1973 flood), Auxillary control (built after the 1973 flood to further protect the Lower Sill), and the Overbank (which suffered some trash damage in the 1973 flood). As I understand it, all these structures are passing water now near their Design Flood flow limits, and will continue to do so, unless the hydro plant is shut down, or they suffer erosion/failure, or collect enough trash to become ersatz dams/levees themselves, unable to dump river water in a controlled way into the Atchafalaya basin. If one or more of these structures fails catastrophically, water from the current main channel could leave the Mississippi in a rush, cutting a new channel to the Atchafalaya in a matter of days, or even hours.

But how much diversion there would be from a single point failure is highly dependent on which structure fails, and the state of additional relief control structures like the Morganza spillway. Furthermore, the Corps is not likely to just stand aside and watch ORCS go down. They could intentionally dynamite levees above and below ORCS to relieve pressure on the structures there, to make eventual channel recovery more likely.

At this time, I think it's all a big ball of worry, even for the "experts," and my heart goes out to those having to make tough decisions in the face of a lot of uncertainty, and to those whose lives are being, and will be impacted by these decisions, for a long time. We'll all be a lot smarter, in hindsight, after the flood, than we possibly can be now.
posted by paulsc at 5:33 PM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


There are alternate waterways which bypass the lower Mississippi. Notably the Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway, built by the corp in 1984, it empties into the Gulf at Mobile, AL and joins the Mississippi way up north in IL I think (via the Tenn and Ohio rivers). So barge traffic wouldn't stop, it would slow down. You could also follow the Great Loop out to the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence via the Great Lakes. Or they could re-open the C&O canal, there are a lot of underemployed mules just chomping at the bit :)
posted by stbalbach at 6:48 PM on May 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


This is fascinating. A thank-you to everyone who posted links. I don't know if this is an accurate impression, but while trying to follow this as it develops I can't help but get the impression that anything that happens in the South of the USA seems to get ignored by the rest of the US. Perhaps the scale of the potential catastrophe here is not being communicated properly.
posted by vicx at 7:07 PM on May 15, 2011


@carter: "I don't know why this isn't being covered in greater depth in the news." and @vicx: "I can't help but get the impression that anything that happens in the South of the USA seems to get ignored by the rest of the US. Perhaps the scale of the potential catastrophe here is not being communicated properly."

I'm getting a lot of coverage as someone who lives waaaaaaay upstream on part of the system that drains, eventually, into the Mississippi. I think most of us in the 31-state watershed are, if we're anywhere near the rivers, even if "our" part of the flood isn't very serious.

I think part of the issue with coverage is that unless you have actually SEEN the Mississippi up close (and even then!) it's a little hard to understand the sheer scale of the thing. I was talking to a friend from Texas about it and he, having never seen the Mississippi except from 30,000 feet, was having a very hard time understanding WHY it was such a big deal (as most rivers near him, in a dry part of Texas, are small). The picture that made him realize "Holy crap, that river's huge!" was a shot of the two miles of levee in Missouri that they blew to let the river flow into the spillway, with the river in the foreground.

Another complicating factor is that, again, this is a 31-state rolling disaster, and for many parts of the river system, this is a "business as usual" disaster; for other parts, this is a "holy crap holy crap holy crap" disaster. Many (most?) of the Mississippi tributaries flood literally every year, and it is WET in the spring around here. (I've read accounts from prior to the breaking of the prairie and installation of french drains that claim you could canoe across the tallgrass prairie states in May with a sufficiently shallow canoe, because it is so wet and drains so poorly. I do know my bulbs tend to rot in the ground in spring because the ground is so. soaked.) Some people affected by flooding, this is the same as they get more or less every year; I have friends who were down sandbagging the grandparents'-farm-turned-riverside-summerhome like they do every springtime on one of the tributaries. Any year they're not sandbagging against the flood, it's a crop-destroying, catastrophic drought. (You've probably seen interviews in the news with people who are being evacuated and just shrugging about it -- they probably experience flooding every year or two, though not necessarily at this level of significance.) And then you have places like Cairo, Ill., and New Orleans facing, potentially, total catastrophe.

And then there's the issue that these are ENORMOUSLY economically productive lands (farming) and waterways (shipping), and I think it's a little difficult to get a clear "talking heads" narrative like 24-hour news wants -- the environmentalists vs. the corporations. The small farmers vs. the big city developers. Whatever. But since all of us riverside dwellers exist both in cooperation with and opposition to the rivers, it's not so easy a story. Environmentally smart river management that allowed flooding and preserves wetlands protects farmers ... but takes otherwise-productive farmlands out of production and raises the prices for nearby acreages. Just hyper-locally to me, tightening sewage standards has resulted in a significant increase in water quality and a reduction in the cost of water treatment, which means cheaper tap water for me ... but a significant increase in my sewer tax too. I've very quickly learned that when the river's involved, there's no right or easy answer, just a balancing of risks and interests and hopes and guesses.

@Homeboy Trouble: A word that might help your googling is "distributary." It's the opposite of a tributary ... the Mississippi (as doubtless you know from maps) ends in a delta where any number of channels, some big enough to get their own names, branch off here and there. Those are sometimes known as distributaries.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:37 PM on May 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


"You could also follow the Great Loop out to the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence via the Great Lakes."

(Wikipedia has a nice map of potential routes.)

Yes, but ... while the Illinois system maintains the same 9-foot dredged shipping lane as the Mississippi, the shipping lane is NOT 400 feet wide (at least not through the whole system) and cannot accommodate the same volume of river traffic. Also, parts of the Illinois River freeze across the shipping lane at least periodically during the winter. The Mississippi, being considerably larger, freezes less often, and since you're shipping south, it's obviously less of a concern.

Also, perhaps obviously, the ports along the upper parts of the system are simply not prepared to cope with the same level of traffic as the Port of South Louisiana, which is frakking enormous.

I'm also pretty sure I recall that it costs more to go up and over rather than down and out, since you pay to go through at least some of the various locks, but probably there's someone with more knowledge of barge shipping here would could tell us. Certainly costs more in gas to go upstream rather than down.

Anyway, yeah, barge traffic would continue even if the Port of South Louisiana were shut down due to catastrophic Mississippi motion, but here's what we're talking about:
Governed by a board of seven Commissioners, the Port of South Louisiana, which stretches 54 miles along the Mississippi River, is the largest tonnage port district in the western hemisphere. The facilities within St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, and St. James parishes (counties) handled over 246 million short tons of cargo in 2010, brought to its terminals via vessels and barges.

Over 4,000 oceangoing vessels and 55,000 barges call at the Port of South Louisiana each year, making it the top ranked in the country for export tonnage and total tonnage.

With exports of over 48 million short tons of cargo in 2010 (go to News & Information/Statistics page for more statistics details) -more than any other port in North America- Port of South Louisiana cargo throughput accounts for 15% and 57% of total U.S. and Louisiana exports, respectively. Source
Or, per wikipedia: "The Port of South Louisiana is the largest volume shipping port in the Western Hemisphere and 9th largest in the world. ... It is the largest bulk cargo port in the world. ... This port is critical for grain shipments from the Midwest, handling some 60% of all raw grain exports."

The suckage would be enormous.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:59 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"HopperFan: how far can they swim? and for how long? how long can they go without food? and is it better to let them live a few extra days to wreck the property (especially houses) on the few high ground areas before they go under?"

I suppose it would depend on the animal, and where the high ground was - but like indubitable mentioned, maybe they're taking this opportunity to cull some of the more invasive species in the area. It just seems odd - for example, are they schlepping the carcasses out after they shoot them, or just leaving them there?
posted by HopperFan at 9:07 PM on May 15, 2011


humanfont: "So you are blaming our suffering on the wrath of a supernatural being. You are right that the is a teachable moment in here"

I'll consider my point widely missed.


I don't see any problem here that can't be solved by pipes, pumps and a lot of reinforced concrete. In fact I see two problems that can be solved and create jobs, water security and increase agricultural output. Humanity shapes the world we live in. You keep standing outside in the rain making offering to your imaginary earth mother goddess, I'm going to open an umbrella or go inside my well constructed house and stay dry. Ooh no I'm ficking with mother nature.
posted by humanfont at 9:19 PM on May 15, 2011


Half a million cubic feet per second: how big is the pipe?
posted by warbaby at 9:29 PM on May 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


From McPhee, on why floods getting worse:
Every shopping center, every drainage improvement, every square foot of new pavement in nearly half the United States was accelerating runoff toward Louisiana. The precipitation that produced the great flood of 1973 was only about twenty per cent above normal. Yet the crest at St. Louis was the highest ever recorded there.
posted by stbalbach at 10:24 PM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


> Half a million cubic feet per second: how big is the pipe?

It better be fucking gigantic. You know that tunnel they just dug around Niagra falls.

It's meant to handle 17,660 cubic feet per second.

And it works by cutting the tunnel out of bedrock and granite, not steel formed pipes. And cost 1.6 Billion canadian (maybe even more when it is done) and after the years of digging the tunnel, they still have another two years before the project is even complete.

The smart thing is to look at the bigger picture of the entire project, and not try to divide the process between humans and mother nature. Just because we are complicated mammals who think of creative ways to kill each other and justifying our existence doesn't magically make us less dependent on this plant than other mammals. It just makes us more cocky about it.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:49 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just reading a bit, levees are a catch-22, aren't they? Every time you raise them, the river raises its bed, meaning you need to raise the levees again, etc.
posted by maxwelton at 3:06 AM on May 16, 2011


@humanfont: "I don't see any problem here that can't be solved by pipes, pumps and a lot of reinforced concrete. In fact I see two problems that can be solved and create jobs, water security and increase agricultural output."

It's honestly hard to tell if you're trolling or if you're just very ignorant of river management. Diverting water from the Mississippi system to elsewhere (like the Gulf of Mexico, by allowing far too much runoff) is ALREADY a problem because it depletes the underlying aquifers (by failing to refill them with appropriate quantities of water that should NOT be running off elsewhere but soaking down in), such as the Ogallala (huge and already suffering and becoming problematic for those who depend on it) and the Sankoty (one of the few remaining still-healthy aquifers in the U.S.). Even if it doesn't lead to a total loss of water available for drinking, irrigation, and other applications, it makes the water much more expensive to extract and frequently leads to a level of salinity that makes the water inappropriate for agricultural uses, and also requires more expensive water treatment.

Your idea would set us up for a bigger disaster later on -- attempts to control rivers as large as the Mississippi always fail in the end, that's inevitable -- and while it might provide some water to West Texas for a few decades, perhaps, in the end you would succeed admirably in destroying the agricultural richness of the Mississippi drainage area. Ideas that take the most agriculturally-productive land in the world and make it useless for human food crops in a couple of decades are obviously suboptimal.

It also, and obviously, destroys water security.

Also, as you are apparently ignorant, there are ENORMOUS bodies of law dealing with riparian rights. The management of the Great Lakes (one of your bizarre ideas for dumping the excess Mississippi water) is governed by treaty, and it's a highly-litigated treaty because water management there is so important. How much water individual municipalities can take out of major rivers is typically government be interstate covenants and state law. Again, highly-litigated. It is actually illegal for my city to sell Illinois River water to other municipalities (or, God forbid, send it out of state), because it infringes on the rights of downstream communities, farmers, and others who make use of the water, and costs taxpayer money by (for example) increasing the dredging costs of keeping the shipping channel open if the water levels falls too low.

You could also take five minutes to look up the process of turning the Chicago River backwards -- a HUUUUUUGE water-diversion project -- and see what that cost and the many problems that's created (more flooding!), in addition to the ones it solved (less cholera!). You'll also learn that completely diverting the flow of the Chicago, which is a TINY little river, is impossible, and every time there's a major rainstorm, the Chicago is allowed to flow into Lake Michigan ANYWAY, rather than swamp Chicago, which fucks with clean drinking water for days or even weeks. (mmmm, chlorine and boil orders.) A $3+ billion, 30-year project to create deep tunnels for sewage to try to prevent some of these runoff issues will help, but won't solve.

But yeah, you keep insulting people who use "Mother Nature" as a stand-in for "these are hugely complicated and interconnected systems where brute-force attempts at management tend to create more problems than they solve" and insist that your simple, ill-considered solutions to incredibly complex problems of water management are better than actually, you know, understanding the problem.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:51 AM on May 16, 2011 [26 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee is wielding the hammer of knowledge.
posted by ged at 6:24 AM on May 16, 2011


Click for before and after of the river going where it will.
posted by rtha at 6:28 AM on May 16, 2011


Just once I would like to wield a hammer of knowledge, any hammer, without glaring grammatical and typographical errors. But I guess that is impossible on the internet, especially when you do your main surfing right after waking up. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:47 AM on May 16, 2011


That Rising Tide book mentioned above told the sad tale of the debate between the Corp of Engineers and James Eads on the use of levees and jetties.
posted by dglynn at 6:52 AM on May 16, 2011


Is that 1927 flood the one referenced by the SPOILER last scene of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
posted by wenestvedt at 7:50 AM on May 16, 2011


I don't think so, wenestvedt. They talked about flooding to make a lake, on a certain day. I think OBWAT was making reference to one of the TVA reservoirs.
posted by notsnot at 8:07 AM on May 16, 2011


Corps of Engineers Flickr Feed.
posted by Danf at 9:16 AM on May 16, 2011


I made a web version of that 1944 historical Mississippi map. You can zoom in on the beautiful map and use a slider control to show modern satellite images beneath it.
posted by Nelson at 9:46 AM on May 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


and I think it's a little difficult to get a clear "talking heads" narrative like 24-hour news wants

Yes. Although I'm surprised they aren't trying harder because the news cycle loves its doom and gloom FUD and here we are presented with an issue that could actually be a societal mushroom cloud, impacting millions of people and fundamentally altering the very fabric of the country, and they are mostly being hands off. (as in: reporting it, but beneath the fold that is whatever Trump is doing...)
posted by quin at 10:11 AM on May 16, 2011


I wonder if this will boast tourism? I can't be the only person looking at the writing on the wall and knowing that I want to go to these places while they still resemble themselves.

There's a whole book on the subject: 100 Places to Go Before They Disappear
posted by smackfu at 10:13 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


i appreciate the great comment eyebrows but i'm not familiar with any boil orders related to rainstorms in the chicagoland area. there's problems with swimming, yes, but not drinking water.
posted by lester at 10:30 AM on May 16, 2011


Nelson, that's neat. You can see how the water might want to go down the Atchafalaya basin.
posted by carter at 10:37 AM on May 16, 2011


My proposal would increase water security. This Mississippi floods on a fairly regular basis (this extreme flood this year is not the first flood since 27, just the biggest. Meanwhile the desert southwest and the great lakes are in chronic water deficit. The High Plains Aquifer is being drawn on in excess of its recharge rate. Water drawing rights defined by various interstate agreements and international treaties were assigned in such a way that the High Plains and the Great Lakes Basin have assigned at unsustainable levels. Resolving this requires conservation, negotiation of new treaties and rights and could be helped by adding a more acre-feet of freshwater to the system.
posted by humanfont at 11:09 AM on May 16, 2011


Hey carter!
posted by nile_red at 11:29 AM on May 16, 2011


@lester: "i'm not familiar with any boil orders related to rainstorms in the chicagoland area. "

I grew up in the north suburbs in the 80s and 90s, and any rainstorm that resulted letting the river into the lake resulted in SUPER-chlorinated water for a few days (blech!), and now and then (not often) in a 24-hour boil order. I don't think we were on the same water treatment plant as the city; I imagine it varied based on where along the Lake your municipality drew its water (and which way the effluent drifted), and how modernized the treatment plant in question was.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:08 PM on May 16, 2011


So far none of the houses on the other side of the levee in Jefferson Parish have taken on water, we went up to see them last night. The yards are flooded, though. It is rather scary to see the level of the river and mentally carry it over the first story of your house. It makes me feel glad that we've been rather lazy about unpacking things from the attic.
posted by domo at 2:46 PM on May 16, 2011


Thanks for this FPP. While I'm following links, perhaps someone can answer this:

I've seen plenty of footage of people loading their furniture into trucks, etc. What's in place for people who are too frail to load their own furniture, too poor to afford U-Hauls and storage, or both?
posted by cyndigo at 3:15 PM on May 16, 2011


What's in place for people who are too frail to load their own furniture, too poor to afford U-Hauls and storage, or both?

I can't say for certain, but I'd suppose loss of everthing, Red Cross assistance, and pleading for Federal disaster relief funds.

The Red Cross is awesome. There was a fire in an apartment complex I lived in years ago, and while I wasn't affected, my two neighbors to the right pretty much lost everything due to smoke and water damage. The Red Cross provided them with direct donations of clothing and food, and gave them vouchers which were redeemable for new beds. It wasn't much, but it was enough for them to get started rebuilding their lives. At the very least, they had something to sleep on other than the ground, and sometimes that can mean the difference between coping and falling apart entirely.
posted by hippybear at 3:35 PM on May 16, 2011


Town discovers that everything will be under 15 feet of floodwater.
posted by ColdChef at 6:12 PM on May 16, 2011


Wow, that video is awful, ColdChef. It's from Butte LaRose, some 50+ miles down the Atchafalaya from the Mississippi / Old River junction.
posted by Nelson at 6:43 PM on May 16, 2011


When I was a Boy Scout, we used to go canoeing out of Butte LaRose. Mosquitoes ate us alive in the Atchafalya Basin.
posted by ColdChef at 8:00 PM on May 16, 2011


I have surprisingly not been bitten by mosquitoes while hiking around the flooded areas, and usually if there's any sort of biting insect, it's on me.

Ants though...I've seen tons of them rafting around.

[self flickr-links]
posted by nile_red at 10:35 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


After 2 barges broke free of a 25 barge tow and hit a bridge carrying Highway 190 in Baton Rouge on May 14, the Coast Guard has reduced barge tows on the flooded river to a maximum of 20, according to Governor Jindal. Breakaway barges were drawn in to the Overbank structure at ORCS in the 1973 flood, creating damage to that structure. Lowering the number of barges permissible in a single tow will effectively slow freight traffic and raise costs on freight being shipped on the flooded river, but should help prevent additional breakaway incidents and complications to navigation.

Also, as of Monday evening May 16, 15 gates at the Morganza spillway were open, with more to be opened as flood water in the Mississippi River continues to rise:
"... The Corps of Engineers opened two gates in the Morganza Spillway on Saturday, the first release from the facility since 1973. By Monday night, 15 of the structure's 125 bays had been opened, divertnig about 102,000 cubic feet (763,000 gallons) of water per second, Corps spokeswoman Rachel Rodi told CNN.
The plan is eventually to open about a quarter of the spillway, according to the agency."
posted by paulsc at 11:21 PM on May 16, 2011


I drove along a levee today with my mom, one of the roads we took was significantly affected by flood waters in the hour we were out. It doesn't look like it's moving, but it's moving.

There are bridges which are passable today and won't be tomorrow, you can see thousands of tiny fish caught up in the current with hundreds of bigger fish chilling out, lined up parallel to current, feasting.

Some areas insects have all climbed up to the tallest blades of grass...it's (I keep saying this) surreal.
posted by nile_red at 12:30 AM on May 17, 2011


According to America's Wetland Resource Center, the average discharge rate of the Mississippi varies from 200,000 to 700,000 cfs:
"... The Mississippi River is much bigger! Its flow rate during the year varies from over 700,000 cfs to around 200,000 cfs. Flow rates are higher in the spring (especially April) when the northern snows are melting and the spring rains abound, and they are lowest in the fall (especially September and October). "
So, if the Corps does open 30 to 32 gates at Morganza in the coming days, sending 204,000 cfs down the Atchafalaya, along with the 624,000 cfs now passing through the ORCS according to Jeff Masters, the Atchafalaya basin is effectively going to experience somewhat greater flood flows than what it would carry on average if the Mississippi main channel were to permanently divert into the Atchafalaya! So, we're likely to see, temporarily, for real for a few weeks, what the effect of a major channel shift would be in the Atchafalaya basin, while full normal flow still goes down the current channel, past Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

And with luck, the ORCS will survive intact, and the Morganza spillway and Bonne Carree can be closed without much trouble, and the river will substantially return to what we have known it to be, these last 50 years or more, albeit leaving behind $300,000,000+ in agricultural damage, plus hundreds of millions more in flood damage to structures and lost business from navigation restrictions.

Amazing. Just amazing...
posted by paulsc at 1:07 AM on May 17, 2011


It has been crazy dry in South Louisiana, and much of the Deep South, this summer. It's been particularly dry in SE Louisiana. (I just moved from there recently and, beforehand, was having my worst spring ever as far as allergies go, but not so much because of pollen but dust, dust of the sort that would coat your car in a day or so after washing it. It's just as dry in SE Louisiana and the New Orleans metro area as it is in the parts of Texas alluded to earlier in this thread. That includes Houston.) The crests predictions are being lowered as the river moves slowly along. So I doubt anything is going to happen to the ORCS. The only thing to watch out for is how slowly the river is moving, which puts levees and Corps-built infrastructure under enormous stress.

Meanwhile the flooding in the Morganza floodway has not been as bad as expected thus far, largely because the water is moving so slowly.
posted by raysmj at 8:20 AM on May 17, 2011


Here's the Morganza floodway on my copy of the Fisk map. Like the Old River Control Structure, it's another area that historically was not part of a Mississippi meander, suggesting the natural landscape there is just a bit higher than the surrounding areas. The 1944 map has a channel there labelled "under construction", which is now a visible canal in Google's aerial imagery from the last year or two.

The Wikipedia article on the Morganza Spillway is fantastic.
posted by Nelson at 8:46 AM on May 17, 2011


Yes, the Baton Rouge Advocate is reporting that flood levels for the Atchafalaya River Basin will be lower than expected. About a quarter of the Morganza Spillway’s 125 gates will be opened, instead of half of them. Reason: Drought in SE Louisiana.
posted by raysmj at 8:49 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


paulsc writes "So, if the Corps does open 30 to 32 gates at Morganza in the coming days, sending 204,000 cfs down the Atchafalaya, along with the 624,000 cfs now passing through the ORCS according to Jeff Masters, the Atchafalaya basin is effectively going to experience somewhat greater flood flows than what it would carry on average if the Mississippi main channel were to permanently divert into the Atchafalaya! So, we're likely to see, temporarily, for real for a few weeks, what the effect of a major channel shift would be in the Atchafalaya basin, while full normal flow still goes down the current channel, past Baton Rouge and New Orleans."

I wonder what this flood would look like if the Atchafalaya had already captured the Mississippi. IE: where would the water end up if it couldn't be diverted because it was already flowing normally in the diversion channel.
posted by Mitheral at 9:15 AM on May 17, 2011


By the way: It's flooding in Mississippi and Louisiana....but there's also a drought.

Today I drove on roads where one side needed watering, and the other was flooding.

(map and video from my flickr)
posted by nile_red at 12:56 AM on May 18, 2011


The delta council has information about wild animals, water levels, aerial and field photos, and elevation for the Mississippi delta region.
posted by nile_red at 3:20 PM on May 18, 2011


RiverLogue

This is the blog of a biologist friend of mine who lives in Butte Larose.

I'm out of town at the moment, so don't have a great picture of what's going on, but my main worry for the Basin is how much sediment this will bring in. The Basin's already pretty high in a lot of areas.
posted by atchafalaya at 7:04 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Vicksburg, MS is seeing a crest a full day ahead of forecast, and more than a foot higher than the 1927 record high flood mark. As of Wednesday evening, May 18, 17 bays were open at the Morganza spillway, passing an estimated 114,000 cubic feet per second. The Coast Guard has reopened a 15 mile section of the river between Vidalia and Natchez, MS to tow vessels/barge strings, but is limiting the traffic to 1 vessel at a time, to minimize wake wave damage to levees.
posted by paulsc at 3:52 AM on May 19, 2011


Even with reduced tows of 20 barges, another barge accident on May 20 in Baton Rouge at the Highway 190 bridge has temporarily closed the river to navigation. The owner of the barges cited high water and swift currents as being the major factors in why 4 barges broke loose from this tow, three of which ultimately hit the bridge and sank, leaving the fourth to hit a nearby dock, but remain afloat. In another incident the same day, a towboat hit another barge at the Rhodia chemical plant, which contained sulfuric acid, but the plant management said that no acid was leaking from the barge.

Part of the Old River Control Structure was damaged in 1973 by freight barges that broke away from a tow, and these present incidents highlight the continued hazards that river navigation at flood stage represents to structures and the river itself.
posted by paulsc at 4:01 PM on May 20, 2011


While looking at imagery about the Joplin tornado, I found these images from NOAA's EVL
posted by nile_red at 1:31 PM on May 23, 2011


In a report published May 23, CNNMoney.com asserts that spillway flooding could cost as much as $2.2 billion in damage:
"The effort to divert the swollen Mississippi River could flood 21,272 homes, inflicting damages of over $2.2 billion, says an analysis by financial research firm CoreLogic. These homes are in the path of deliberate flooding on the part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has opened 17 bays along the Morganza Spillway to flood rural areas with the intention of sparing the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. ..."

"The study also determined that 21% of these soon-to-be-flooded homes are not located in the special flood hazard areas designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A total of 4,528 properties worth about $404 million are outside of these federal flood zones. The 100-year flood zones are areas determined by FEMA to have a 1% annual chance of flooding. These designations are significant because a Congressional law, passed in 1973, directs mortgage lenders to require residents of flood zones to purchase flood insurance. Howard Botts, director of database development for CoreLogic, estimates that up to 50% of the homes in the non-FEMA flood zones do not have flood insurance."
posted by paulsc at 3:04 PM on May 23, 2011


As reported on May 25, the Corps of Engineers has begun closing bays on the Morganza spillway, due to lower than expected and earlier crests of the Mississippi river flood. As of the 25th, 14 bays of the Morganza spillway remain open, and the water levels in the Atchafalaya river basin have remained somewhat lower than originally forecast.
posted by paulsc at 10:04 PM on May 25, 2011


The Atchafalaya River is now (May 31) slowly receding from its maximum flood stage, and the Corps has closed 7 of the 17 gates they had opened at peak at the Morganza spillway.
posted by paulsc at 9:38 PM on May 31, 2011


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