Monday, May 16, 2011

What Has Happened Down Here

What has happened down here is the wind has changed.
Clouds rolled in from the north, and it started to rain.

What has happened down here actually happened up north months ago. The north and east suffered higher than usual snowfalls and then later rainstorms. Anyone who lives along the Mississippi River should know to pay attention to the winter weather forecasts further north. When those heavy snows melt, the water drains into the Mississippi, and then on a beautiful spring day with not a cloud in the sky, drains back out onto the roads and homes of those who live in the port cities along its banks.
Those red things are the tops of letters that spell out "Baton Rouge" along the levee wall

After the flood of 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers was charged with building a system of levees to control the flow of the Mississippi River. In the early part of the 20th century, in the battle between man and nature, confidence was high that man would win. The Mississippi River, lazy beast that it is, frequently changes course to follow the path of least resistance to the Gulf of Mexico. The Atchafalaya River, further west in Louisiana, is such a path, and left to its own devices, the Mississippi by now would have cut to the west at Morganza and followed the Atchfalaya to the Gulf, leaving Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the Port of South Louisiana between, the world's fourth largest port by volume of goods transported, stranded on a backwater. Besides the cities and ports, there are refineries along the river that need the river to transport raw materials and finished products. The economic consequences of the fickle Mississippi packing up and leaving would be dire.  
USS Kidd. See how far it looks from shore? Compare to the picture below. The  Kidd has not moved.

July 4, 2009

So there is something worse to contemplate than flooding, and that is that the source of flooding will take itself off elsewhere. There are those who believe that eventually it will, try as hard as we may to stop it.

The steps where we watch the fireworks each July 4. Last summer, children were playing in a grassy space between the bottom of the steps and the river.

In the meantime, the Corps of Engineers has built a system of levees along the river to keep it in its current course and keep floodwaters from destroying the ports along its route. Built into the levee systems are spillways to divert excess water into low lying areas. The Bonne Carre Spillway diverts water into Lake Pontchartrain, making its use relatively unproblematic. The Morganza Spillway is another matter. The Morganza Spillway releases water into the Atchafalaya Basin, not just into the river but into thousands of acres of forest and farmland, some of it occupied by camps and homes. 

When the spillway was first built, the Corps of Engineers acquired the right to flood the land by paying landowners 90 cents on the dollar. In exchange, the landowners kept title to the land and all mineral rights. In some cases, the Corps leased land to use for levees. The owners are not able to use the land in any way that can damage the levees, but can use the land for grazing and regain title if the levees are  no longer needed (which has happened with smaller ones).  If land is sold, the Corps still retains the right to flood the land. One hopes the land would be sold for less than comparable property that no one is planning to cover with water, but somehow I doubt it's been going for ten cents on the dollar.  Owners are sent a letter every year from the ACOE reminding them of the possibility of the land being flooded if the Spillway needs to be opened.

If human beings were rational actors, this would be straightforward enough. They could make a rational decision to use the land for grazing, farming, hunting, secondary residences ("camps" in local parlance), or oil drilling, and make contingency plans for those times when they need to leave.  This is only the second time the Morganza Spillway has been opened, the last time being 38 years ago. It is quite possible to make profitable use of it in the dry times and prepare for what to do when it floods. Human beings have been taking advantage of the fertile land in flood plains since back in the days of the Egyptians, who counted on the Nile floods each year for irrigation. 

Human beings are not rational actors, however, so natural disasters always come as a surprise, even the ones (like hurricanes and tornadoes) that surprise you once a year rather than once every several decades. I know I for one don't mark June 1 on my calendar every year as the day to check the canned food and battery supplies. It's only when the first hurricane of the season starts making its way to the Gulf of Mexico that I find myself in line with everyone else at Target or Lowe's, thinking that I really should plan ahead next time. It's human nature to think of the good times as default mode and the bad ones as some kind of surreal exception. Yet the Earth is actually a pretty hostile environment for human life. Where can you live that isn't too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, exposed to storms or in the path of earthquakes and volcanoes? You don't even need to be near an earthquake to be hit by a tsunami, or the recipient of 64 inches of snow to find the resulting melt to be at your front door. We are all one wet, shaken, sooty, wind-swept global community, wondering what hit us before we are beguiled by sunshine and rainbows into thinking life is back to normal again, or before wrestling big rivers back into what we think of as their course.

The river rose all day
The river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood
Some people got away alright
The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

(Lyrics are of course from Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927.)  Aaron Neville's version can be heard here.

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