The Mississippi River Flood and the Katrina Risk

On May 20, a few minutes before 1 p.m. and a few miles above the Port of Baton Rouge, the towing vessel Crimson Gem was pushing 20 barges loaded with corn into a tight bend on the Mississippi called Wilkinson Point. The river was raging at eight knots, or about nine miles per hour. It creamed and ripped against pilings and tore along the wharves with a low hiss. Sheets of surface current collided and whirlpools seven yards across spun down the seams. Two days before, at this spot, the Mississippi hit 47.5 feet, the highest level ever measured here. In recorded history.

The captain wasn't thinking about flood records. He was running downstream and had all of his attention on setting up for a tricky right turn. He had to be moving faster than the river, but not too much faster. He didn't make it. The Crimson Gem got shoved to the outside of the bend, to the east, or left, bank and one of his lead barges collided with a barge being loaded with sulfuric acid at the Rhodia Dock.

As the captain frantically attempted to pull his load back toward the center of the river, cables snapped and four barges cut loose. Three of them sank. The fourth went careening toward the Highway 190 Bridge. The barge's gross weight, with load, was approximately 2,500 tons. It narrowly missed the bridge's east pier before it was corralled by some fast-acting assist boats. Because of the incident, the U.S. Coast Guard launched an investigation (refusing to release the captain's name) and closed up to nine miles of river for four days, breaking a critical link between the ports of the lower Mississippi River and all domestic navigation from the country's heartland. An official at the Port of New Orleans estimated that the blockade could cost the U.S. economy $100 million per day in lost commerce.

For some, lost revenue was a secondary concern: The flood of 2011 had, a week before, exceeded Project Flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' term for the maximum flows the entire Lower Mississippi flood control system was designed to handle. And while the natural crest was continuing to move downstream into the Atchafalaya River basin, the height of the water up and down the Mississippi wasn't dropping in a significant way. One terrifying scenario: a loose barge barreling toward the bank like a slow-motion bomb and notching or shearing the top off a levee already tested to its limit. What everybody knows, up and down the river, is that another levee breach, either at Baton Rouge or just above New Orleans, could cause Katrina-like devastation.

Colonel Edward R. Fleming, the Army Corps commander for the New Orleans District, which oversees flood control on the Lower Mississippi, is the man trying to manage the chaos. A West Point graduate, he has a master's degree in environmental engineering, wears camo fatigues, and carries folded in his breast pocket a sheet of the record-breaking stage levels up and down the river to remind him of the historic nature of this event, and of his responsibility. "The system has operated as it was designed to operate," he said on May 26. "We still have more capacity and flexibility built into the system. ... I'm sitting on the edge of my seat. That's what I get paid to do." He added that the latest forecast showed the high water staying around until June 18 and then subsiding slowly as hurricane season arrived. "It's going to be a long summer."

In the weeks leading up to the Crimson Gem accident, flooding on the Mississippi caught the country's attention. The navigable waters of the Mississippi reach up like a branching tree into 31 states and drain 41 percent of the continental U.S., including cities from Pittsburgh to Taos, N.M., to Billings, Mont. The river serves as a transportation conduit between the nation's agricultural and manufacturing heartland and the rest of the world, while its water roads reach 60 percent of the American consuming public. The five-port complex between New Orleans and Baton Rouge 130 miles upstream is the third largest in the world behind Shanghai and Singapore, handling 475 million tons of cargo per year.

Deep-draft vessels—those with a hull deeper than a barge—cannot pass above Baton Rouge, so what they carry—chemicals, steel, and raw materials for manufacturing, largely—is transferred onto the empty barges for the trip upstream. It's an extremely efficient system: One 30-barge tow of grain powered by a single towboat carries the equivalent of 1,800 trucks, or 450 rail cars. An analysis of the 12-day closure of the Port of New Orleans during Katrina found that it cost the U.S. economy $295 million per day.

In the second half of April, snow melt in the upper Midwest and a freight train of wet low-pressure systems that dropped one to two feet of rain on already saturated ground in the Ohio Valley and across the Midwest swelled the river. It barreled toward Cairo, Ill., which sits at the confluence of the Ohio River, and on May 2 broke the previous record for stage level by over two feet. In a bid to save the town and relieve pressure on the river, the Army Corps of Engineers blew the levee at Birds Point, Mo. It was a "fuse plug" levee, designed for exactly this. It worked: Cairo was saved, 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland were flooded, and the river charged on without any appreciable drop.

The crest surged through Memphis, causing an estimated $320 million in damage and wreaking over $500 million of damage to farmland in Arkansas, according to the state's farm bureau. At one point it was estimated that one million acres of farmland were inundated in Arkansas alone. It barreled south to Vicksburg, Miss., overtopped the levees, and forced the Yazoo River to flow backwards for three days. Some 2,000 homes were flooded.

The Big Easy, which many inhabitants felt was just getting back on its feet, seemed again like the Big Target. Would the Corps of Engineers' levee system, which had failed so catastrophically just six years before, protect them from the onslaught of a river that had never been this high? Would the spots where the dirt embankments are seeping or showing sand boils— places where water flows underneath—stand up to weeks of water three feet from their tops? A system of control structures and spillways, much of which was constructed over half a century ago, is the Army Corps' last resort in diverting water from the main stem of the river before it hits Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Will they continue to work?

Inside the operations room of the Corps' district headquarters in New Orleans, Colonel Fleming's Flood Fight Team keeps a careful eye on the map of potential trouble spots. Narrow daggers pinpoint each observed seep and boil in the levees. It looks like a porcupine. In all, there are 294 spots identified where the levees aren't completely holding water. Fleming's spokesman Ricky Boyett says, "Seepage is a common issue with an earthen levee system. We prioritize and monitor them. Seepage in itself is not necessarily detrimental to the stability of the levee." He adds that Duncan Point, below Baton Rouge, is one area of concern that is being closely monitored.

Fleming affirms, "Every foot of every levee is visually checked every day."

How many feet is that?

"Nine hundred, seventy-three miles."

A number of people, including Ivor van Heerden, whose analysis of levee weaknesses went unheeded before Hurricane Katrina, aren't so confident that Colonel Fleming's monitoring system will be enough to avert calamity. One of Louisiana's most respected hydrologists and a former deputy director of the Louisiana Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University, van Heerden is a trim, curly-haired, 60-year-old South African who loves, and fears, water. He once sailed his own 32-foot yacht from Cape Town to Louisiana, and he and his wife are restoring another from the bare bulkheads up for a cruise around the world next fall.

In 2001, van Heerden co-wrote a report published through the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, which he directed at the time. His researchers used LIDAR remote sensing technology to measure the levees and found numerous discrepancies between heights claimed by the Corps of Engineers and actual readings on the ground. He posited some terrible scenarios of what could happen if the levees fail. Harold Schoeffler of Lafayette, La., president of the Acadiana chapter of the Sierra Club and a longtime student of water management on the Lower Mississippi, says, "The report reads like a blow-by-blow description of Katrina. Published five years before. Man, it was eerie."

Van Heerden says the most dangerous time for a breach is in the weeks ahead, and that with most of the flood control system so old, nobody really knows the level of protection. "The weeks of water build pressure inside the levees. There are over 100 seeps and we know there are places with water pouring underneath. The most dangerous thing is if the water drops suddenly. The internal pressure is then pushing against nothing but air and it can blow out a levee. Then if the water rises again, you have a big problem. If a mainline river levee goes, that's going to be a Katrina-like event."

It's remarkable, given the consequences of the last flood of this magnitude on the Mississippi—the Flood of 1927—that in 2011 only four people have died and that property damage has not been far worse. John Michael Riley, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State University, estimates that total agricultural damage in all states affected may reach $1.5 billion. Few people, especially in southern Louisiana, like to praise the Army Corps of Engineers, but throughout the region the Corps is garnering grudging respect for handling a flood that is quietly making history.

In '27, the raging river stampeded downstream, overwhelming banks, bursting earthen levees, and wreaking havoc from Pennsylvania to the Mississippi Delta. When it was all over, water that had come from Canada and Montana, from Illinois and Minnesota and Iowa, lay in malevolent gray sheets over 27,000 square miles in 10 states. Over 300 were killed; 700,000 people were left homeless.

John M. Barry, in his authoritative book on the '27 flood, The Rising Tide, writes that the suffering caused by that flood led to the idea that the federal government should take some responsibility for its citizens in distress. It also prompted the 1928 Flood Control Act, which put in place the lion's share of the levee and flood control system in use today, and established Project Flood, the highest level it was designed to handle—equivalent to the 1927 flows plus 20%.

One critical piece of the system is the Atchafalaya River and its two mammoth control structures. Some 50 miles above Baton Rouge, the Atchafalaya takes its water from the Red River and from the Mississippi. It can take a lot of water. In fact, it acts like a western fork of the bigger river—a more efficient fork, even. According to the Corps, it reaches the Gulf of Mexico in 100 to 150 fewer river miles than the main stem, and has a steeper gradient. If water can be said to want anything, the Mississippi River water wants to go there, and the Corps had to build a marvel of engineering called the Old River Control Structure in 1963 to keep it from jumping into Atchafalaya's bed, draining the Mississippi, and leaving the Port of New Orleans high and dry.

Before that, however, in 1954, the Corps of Engineers constructed a spillway at the town of Morganza, La., 35 miles below the Old River Control and 50 miles above Baton Rouge, to save New Orleans from an opposite, wetter fate. This spillway allows the Corps to siphon off water from the Mississippi and into the Atchafalaya in case of emergencies. The idea was to create a way to relieve pressure on the main stem like the blown levee way up at Birds Point, but without the dynamite.

Colonel Fleming explained that the trigger for opening the gates of this spillway was reaching Project Flood: 1.5 million cubic feet per second (cfs) on the Mississippi at Morganza. It had only happened once, 38 years ago. On May 14, General Michael J. Walsh, commander of the Mississippi Valley Div. of the Army Corps of Engineers, ordered the gates to be opened again.

Jody Meche is half throttle at 20 knots, running his 19-foot aluminum skiff down a twisted trail of water in the Atchafalaya Basin, which is bring fed from the Morganza Spillway. The boat responds like an animal, finding impossible openings in a thick forest of cypress and tupelo, purple flowering floating lilies, and birds. Ibises and egrets, startling white, fly out of the canopy. Squadrons of yellow-crowned night herons, in ragged V's, skim broadwinged just over the treetops. Near the hamlet of Butte LaRose, the treetops aren't very high up: Meche is used to fishing these bayous and sloughs in three to six feet of water. Since the Corps opened the Morganza and raised the stage level to 23 feet, he looks down at heron's nests, at water level, that should be way up in the trees.

"I don't like that the animals get hurt," he says, cutting the engine. "The birds have a natural instinct. They're not programmed in accordance with how the Corps is managing the water. The other day I saw two little armadillos on a log. They didn't have nowhere to go. And a rabbit. He jumped off when I came. Swimming." Meche says the gators eat the small animals like popcorn, and the snakes go up in the trees and eat the birds. "It's almost like the Corps is playing God," he says.

The Atchafalaya Basin, fed by its namesake river, is 800,000 acres of iconic moss-hung cypress swamp and lily-choked bayous and lakes; it's his office and his cafeteria. Meche, 41, is Cajun. He speaks with a French accent and loves crawfish. In a normal season, he runs 800 crawfish traps—400 every other day. Now he has to run half that because the strong current loosed from the Morganza shoves his boat around and tangles traps. "For years," he says, "they don't give us enough water. The water pockets up, loses oxygen. The crawfish die in their traps. Dead water everywhere. Now this."

The Basin, like the rest of the Atchafalaya riverway, is confined between lines of north-south levees that run from the Old River Control Structure to just above the river's delta at the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike its sister river off to the east, the Mississippi, the Atchafalaya has guide levees that are mostly 18 to 20 miles apart. It creates a huge catchment of swamp and lakes that fills slowly, and empties slowly. Two small towns lie within the Basin, between the levees. And one prosperous port town sits at the bottom of the floodway, catching the brunt of the diverted flow just before the river empties itself into the sea.

If Meche is mad, it's nothing like the fury of the folks over at Butte LaRose. Nobody likes to be flooded on purpose. On the evening before a mandatory evacuation on May 24, Doucet's grocery store was empty. The fish camps and houses along the blackwater bayou were empty. No cars in the driveways. No sound but loud frogs, the croak of a heron, the peeps of purple martins wheeling in a sky fading to lilac. Water was already reaching up into some of the yards. A single National Guard Humvee drove lights-on up the only road. It felt like the apocalypse.

In a town of 1,400, there were now seven people. Two were Anthony and Betty Ardoin. Willy, a Great Pyrenees rescued from Katrina, was already loaded in the truck. As it got dark the couple was tying their lawn furniture to trees, taking a last look around. Betty fought back tears, pointed to a line drawn on the side of her house at about waist level.

"This is 24½ feet on the gauge marked here. That's the new estimate. That Colonel Fleming, he came to the firehouse, said the water was going to be 15 feet higher than where we were standing: 15 feet!" She grabbed a wood pole, stuck the end up against a second story window. "That's up here. We moved everything up. People cried and crossed themselves. He terrified folks. He shouldn't have done that. How could they be that far off?"

Another resident about to leave was Jack Domingue, white-haired and a little stiff, who carried a jug of sugar water and filled up the 16 hummingbird feeders hanging from the roof of his patio. "All these'll last about six days. I don't know when I'll be back." He stood on the concrete in the half dark. "Stand real still. They'll come in." In a minute, with the dark water rising a few feet away, the old man was surrounded by the hum and whip of a hundred tiny wings.

Louisiana loses 25 to 35 square miles of land per year to coastal erosion, according to the state. Scientists say that this is because the very levee system designed to protect its population is funneling the Mississippi through earth and concrete walls all the way to the continental shelf, where its rich sediment load is dropped into deep water and has no chance of contributing to the natural processes of coastal rebuilding. This, in turn, contributes to the damage caused by hurricanes and storms: The marsh and barrier islands that protected coastal towns are disappearing.

It drives people like G. Paul Kemp wild. He's the vice-president and director of the National Audubon Society's Gulf Coast Initiative and another respected hydrologist. He worked with van Heerden on the study that warned of a disaster like Katrina, and when the BP (BP) oil spill hit the coast, he and van Heerden urged the state of Louisiana and the Corps to open diversions, siphons, and locks to push water into the Gulf and keep the oil offshore. "They could have done 50 years of coastal restoration with this one flood. We built two spillways at a cost of $100 million, just to distribute sediment into the marshes, and they didn't use them." says Kemp. "We had a perfect opportunity to prove that it works."

Kemp is also concerned about the state of the current levee system and the weeks of high water ahead. "We are seeing stage levels get higher over the years with the same amount of volume in the river." That points to an obvious conclusion: The levees need to be raised.

Gary P. LaGrange, on the other hand, is silt's sworn enemy. He's the president and chief executive officer of the Port of New Orleans. He's a local boy—now a very big 65-year-old man in a pinstriped suit, shot cuffs, and cream shirt—from the little town of Franklin. He studied geography, so he knows the importance of sediment to the coast, but he doesn't want it in his river channel.

LaGrange played valve trombone in a blues band, got a master's in urban planning from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and was teaching there when he got a call from the newly formed Port Commission for the Port of West of St. Mary. They wanted him to be their port director. Problem was, there was no port. Not yet. "We obtained a cane field on the river. In the beginning we were crawling through barbed wire and cane with machetes." It took a while, but his new port went international soon enough, receiving cargo in ships from Costa Rica. "I guess we built that port from the weeds up." He moved on to direct the Port of South Louisiana and the Port of Gulfport before coming to New Orleans.

He's amazed at the skill of the Army Corps of Engineers. "I'm telling you, they operate the gates—it's almost musical in the way they operate them." He grins. "Like a valve trombone." He says the Corps called him when the crest was coming down the river and said, "Gary, don't worry. It'll stay at 17 feet in the port." Fleming explained that they could promise that because they had opened the gates of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, another pressure valve just above New Orleans.

"All that water is bringing a whole lot of sediment," LaGrange says. "When it starts falling, the sediment will drop out." He says the Lower Mississippi has a design channel depth of 45 feet. "The last five years, the cost of dredging the Lower Mississippi River is $104 million. On an average, Congress and the Administration have appropriated $55 million to $65 million." He explains that previously, when it ran out of funds in September, the Corps would "reprogram" funds from districts that had a surplus, and they would make their depth. "We received an announcement that this year they would no longer reprogram funds. Now, with the higher rivers, the shipping industry has projected that that shortfall will be $95 million."

He leaned forward in his chair. "Every foot in lost depth costs the economy $1 million per ship call," says LaGrange, because ships have to carry lighter loads. Less cargo equals less production. "We have 12,000 ship calls per year."

That's $12 billion per annum. "And we need $95 million." He thinks the government should find the money.

The first of June marked the official start to hurricane season, and the prospect of more water makes van Heerden wary. "It's not inconceivable that we could get an early tropical storm that dumps 30 inches of rain on Louisiana," he says, looking grim. "The Army Corps of Engineers has claimed on numerous occasions a 1-in-1,500-year level of protection. This is a one-in-25-year event, and it is completely challenging the system. You have citizens and the National Guard mobilizing to sink barges in bayous and fortify levees. It raises the question: What level of protection is the Corps really offering?"

Van Heerden has called for a complete overhaul: a gathering together of independent scientists, engineers, and social policy experts to reexamine the entire Mississippi flood control system. He points out that it would have cost $400 million to fix the levee system around New Orleans before Katrina and that, instead, 1,700 people died and it cost upward of $200 billion to repair the damages after the fact.

Colonel Fleming doesn't disagree. "There's no doubt that after this event we will have to take a hard look at the entire system. We've now passed the Project Flood. We have passed what everybody thought would never occur. Do we have the system right?"

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