Saturday, May 14, 2011
Updating the River
So here is a heading for this post, and as soon as they decide how much of the Morganza Spillway to open, to divert water to the Atchafalaya basin, when its force becomes too great for the modern channel, I'll finish this posting. Note the Native American name, from the language of one of the peoples who lived off the swamps before the relatively modern European Americans (not only Anglos and Acadiens but also Spanish and German and lots of Irish) made it their home. And, for that matter, the main channel of the great river in geologically recent times was still in that basin, but that was a long time ago in the minds of present-day Louisianans.
Just after midnight, now May 14, Chicago Time
Well, they are going to open that Morganza Spillway that I'd barely heard of until this week. Let me first correct the impression given above: The Morganza Floodway is parallel to and to the east of the Atchafalaya Basin. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morganza_Spillway
I was right that it had never been opened in the 30 years that I've lived here. Even though the land that will be flooded is owned as a floodway, and is only used otherwise with that understanding, as with certain lands below old earthen dams on the Sacramento River in California, no one wants either to destroy crops or to displace families that have lived on the land for generations, unless it is necessary.
Consider, though, up in Pointe Coupee Parish parts of the old town of St. Francisville, just to name one, are already flooded (Morganza is just up river from it). Notice, too, all the worm-shaped water thereabouts which are, literally, pieces of the Mississippi, left behind when it shifted to its present course (no, Man didn't make it do that; we think that the river has shifted more than once in the last few thousand years). The Morganza Floodway will carry water where the river has at times been before.
But Industry, chemical and specifically petroleum, is not just something to yell at, as if it were the Viet Nam War. Louisiana is no place for five million population were it left as the Native Americans enjoyed it. The New Bridge, the one over I-10, was built high so that it needn't be opened for ships, but just yesterday, Reuters said, a ship (registered in Baikal!) had to turn back, because the River was already so high that clearance was insufficient. And, it was bruited about, the Exxon-Mobil plant was already flooded today, at least enough that it couldn't operate, enough that liquid cargo (you know what) couldn't be unloaded.
I honestly don't think that my neighborhood will be flooded; it IS a little higher than some others, but I'm just as glad that opening as many gates as necessary in the Morganza Spillway will bring down our crest, estimated to be on the 22nd of May, by a couple of feet. I'm sure that the University and the refineries and Dow Chemical and BASF, et al., are just as glad, too.
Already US 61 up by Tallulah is closed and a number of other highways; even parts of the Interstate are expected to be awash.
I confess that the Mississippi fascinates me. Not because of its might so much (look how it meanders for much of its length) as how it gathers so many Waters together. When I came here, I was consoled for the absence of mountains by the presence of the great river. When I was little, there was a black-and-white movie, a biopic, about Mark Twain. When I was in university, I was taught to understand the history of Europe as the history of its rivers. And so on.
It isn't simply the height of the water, it's the mass of it this year.
When I lived in Oregon, they said that it only snowed in the mountains--and then one year I had 35 inches of the stuff on my ticky-tacky FHA-built roof (which naturally couldn't take it).
When I came to Louisiana, they said that New Orleans lived a charmed life, because hurricanes never actually hit it (of course, there were professors at LSU that thought otherwise).
Now, just when I thought I might live out my remaining years without a repetition of "Lanterns on the Levee" (on the 1927 flood), they are having to take measures lest the levees built after 1927 may not be sufficient to handle 2011. The suburbs flood every several years, anyway, but they are saying that people will not be able to go back to where they lived below the Spillway. This is different from Missouri. Our Old Man River may just, they say, change lanes once again and flow down the Morganza way once again, once allowed to do so, incorporating once again those bits of Old River up by Pointe Coupee.
Bah! I do not like Nature; physis is not theia; and, no, it's not homo sapiens' fault, really; he, too, is part of Nature. Our only advantage is in being able to be interested in it.
So, now I know no more than any of you do.
P.S. They are waiting as long as possible to open the Spillway, so that folks can finish moving everything before the water comes.
N.B. The first gate was opened on schedule at 3pm. BTW, the experts say the water is going to the Atchafalaya...
Note: I won't add everyday to this post, but I'll make a new one in a week, when more results should be apparent. Please note, however, that it is not a question of choosing between flooding big cities or else small communities (many of whose inhabitants have jobs in the ports or need to ship from them) but of minimizing tragedy: should the places where the main levee has shown weakness over the years break, not only the ports and cities but much of the areas west of the river would be flooded anyhow and with potentially far worse consequences. And that spillway at Morganza, which ordinarily retains water, now partly, judiciously opened, may also prevent much worse flooding in places north of Morganza, places like Vidalia, for example, now that diversion through the spillway will, as I understand, reduce the mass of water there when the cresting at Natchez occurs. It is NOT a question of victimizing the basin-dwellers.