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May 14, 2011

The Morganza Spillway
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 02:35 PM * 28 comments

The US Army Corps of Engineers is planning to open the Morganza Spillway this afternoon.

When it opens, the event will be streamed live. It’s expected to happen around 4:00pm EDT. Looks like it’s going to flood Cajun country, but the alternative is worse.

Water has a lot of energy behind it.

See more at WAFB, Baton Rouge.

Comments on The Morganza Spillway:
#1 ::: Claire ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 03:39 PM:

Looks like it's also on C-SPAN 1.

#2 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 03:47 PM:

The C-SPAN1 feed also has audio.

(On the other hand, the chat window off the other feed is interesting to read.)

#3 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 05:38 PM:

All week we've been getting anxious e-mails from our friends. These include the news they've acquired life jackets for their dogs as well as for themselves.

Angola Prison was evacuated last week, thank gods.

Love, C.

#4 ::: Phiala ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 05:53 PM:

If, like me, you missed it live, there's archival video here.

I think these Landsat satellite images are even more dramatic.

#6 ::: Goshawk ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 09:54 PM:

Definitely a wet year for North America. I barely heard about the Mississippi floods; I've been throwing sandbags at the Assiniboine River up here in Manitoba all week (now there's a good workout). They just opened a deliberate breach here, as well. Looks like the Miss. flooding is a lot worse though, yikes. Crazy times.

#7 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 10:09 PM:

I'm busy looking at the parched gardens around here, and thinking "somebody, somewhere, has to come up with a way of moving big amounts of water from A to B across the world". Somehow, I doubt most courier firms are up to the job, which is a pity. We on the west coast of Australia could use a few gazillion megalitres - multiple decades of receding rainfall mean we're really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

(It's not as though we don't have the spots to put it, either - there's lots of wetlands and salt lakes which could cope nicely with having themselves topped up once the dams are full. Then we can start in on figuring out how to top up the aquifers. All these floods are just a waste!)

#8 ::: Brad Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 10:26 PM:

I've got family all over that part of the country, on both sides of the river and throughout the delta region. Fingers crossed. She's not called the Mighty Mississippi for nothing.

#9 ::: Semilog ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 11:34 PM:

The New Yorker has put up John McPhee's wonderful piece on the Atchafalaya and the Old River Control Structure. Well worth reading, or re-reading.

#10 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2011, 11:53 PM:

Goshawk: A weather year. Texas has a massive drought.

#11 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2011, 07:30 AM:


Conversation with my Louisiana peeps has opined that if Texas wants water they know where it is and are welcome to come get it.

(Natural disasters don't trump interstate rivalries, at least not at this stage of the process.)

#12 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2011, 08:50 AM:

Sympathies to all those affected. I must say that, alongside my concern about the individual persons (and associated animals, beloved posessions, livelihoods etc.), and not in any way wanting to minimise or detract from their problems and concerns, my main response is the same as when I was hearing/reading about floods along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers back in 1993 (while interning in Wisconsin for three months): if you drain and build on/develop* the marshes (which are designed to absorb large quantities of water like a sponge and let it out slowly later) and cut off (using levees) build on/develop* the flood plains (which are designed to take the overflow in flood conditions - it's why they're called flood plains), you can't really be surprised if you get floods over large areas of human built/developed* areas when very heavy rains happen.

* by develop I mean "change to non-grass agriculture, industry or whatever")

#13 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2011, 10:00 AM:

dcb: my much less sophisticated version, dating from my last visit to Saint Louis, is: if you can look UP and see ships passing by basically overhead, something is seriously wrong.

#14 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2011, 10:28 AM:

West Texas has been praying for rain since winter.
It's uphill all the way from Louisiana, and the last bit is nearly vertical.

#15 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2011, 10:31 AM:

Dr. Jeff Masters has a good post about this on his weather blog. Masters links to and quotes McPhee, and discusses the current situation.

This was written yesterday, before the Corps opened the Morganza Spillway, but updates are promised.

#16 ::: Poppy Z Brite ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2011, 01:02 PM:

dcb, I live down here (New Orleans) and love this region, and you are *not* minimizing our concerns; what you discussed is a huge problem for us. It makes me sick to see what industry (mostly oil) and erosion have done to our wetlands, and Louisiana has let them do it. Katrina and its aftermath would have been far less disastrous if our wetlands were still intact. I don't want to see New Orleans drowned again by any means, but I hate that we have to flood other people in order to prevent it.

#17 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2011, 05:43 PM:

My mother lives in Humboldt County, CA, in a town near the floodplains of the Eel River. In her area, the real estate ads -- as everywhere -- are written in code phrases, but whereas urban apartments described in the ads as 'cozy' are generally really 'tiny and cramped,' out by her, if the ad says '40 flat acres,' it means, 'floods every single year.'

My mom lives in a market town -- where the people with money settled, and where all the surrounding farming families brought their crops to market. It is also on the highest available ground. All the farmland (mostly dairy, nowadays; historically some grain and veggies, before we started trucking food all over) is on the actual floodplain, and is generally very flat.

All the farmhouses are on little earth berms, their front doorsills usually between 2-6 feet higher than the surrounding area. Inside, most of the original houses have big eye-hooks in the ceiling -- so that when a flood threatens, residents can pile their couches, etc, onto a big rug, run ropes under it and up to the eye-bolts, cinch tight, and leave their furniture hugging their ten-foot ceilings (with all portables carried to the second floor) before they evacuate To Town to stay with friends for the duration.

A flood bad enough to evacuate half the farmhouses happens about every four years. A flood bad enough to evacuate ALL of them happens once a decade, or a little less often. A flood bad enough to very nearly flood the town happens about once every hundred years -- one did, a few years ago, and my mom went around taking photos documenting how very well the original settlers had taken frequent bad flooding *into account* in their development plan. USGS pegged that flood as one of the worst since statistics were being kept, and it stopped short about 5 feet from the "Welcome To Our Town" sign on the main road in -- the high ground was fine. Some of the farmhouses' ceilinged furniture was soaked, but their upper floors were for the most part ok.

In her neck of the woods, everyone listens to the radio in the spring for the 'flood stage' numbers. Everyone knows the 'magic number' for their house -- the number, when measured at the datum near the river, that means they're probably going to get wet.

It's a refreshingly different mindset than the very leveed Mississippi verge here in Illinois, or even (especially?) the suburbanites who live in houses on lots backing up to the Des Plaines and Fox Rivers and their tributaries, who in dry years adore the 'picturesque creek' at the end of their backyard, but in wet years scream and yell for Federal relief in the face of 'unprecedented,' 'catastropic' flooding.

#18 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2011, 09:19 PM:

My mother's oldest sister and her husband lived on a farm very close to the Osage River, between Bagnell Dam and Jefferson City, Missouri. My uncle was known to say about several of the fields that flooded in wet years, "We pay the taxes on those acres, but the river owns them; we have an arrangement that lets us use the acreage a good bit."
(His grandfather built the farmhouse on a hill,well away from the river.)

I think this applies to pretty much all rivers.

#19 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 02:03 AM:

Elliott Mason: I have connections to Humboldt (so does abi). They have always struck me as a sensible lot of people.

#20 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2011, 06:09 AM:

Terry @19:
They have always struck me as a sensible lot of people.

Well, many of them are sensible. But pretty much all of them are no-nonsense.

(Why, yes, there are a number of stories in there. And I think they'll stay in there, if you know what I mean.)

#21 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 10:22 AM:

Ditto. However, developers look at "all that flat, empty land," and start drooling. They don't care about long range issues, just the short range ones that mean they can buy, build and then sell for profit. This is more than just "seasonal" flooding. it also applies to manufacturing plants built on alluvial soil with nothing more than a slab foundation. (then people wonder why their facility settles unevenly and the floors start developing large cracks).

Ditto for my part of the world in Kansas. All of the original houses were built outside the normal range of flooding. The 100 and 500 year floods would get the lower lying ones though. Growing up, it was not unusual to have at least one flood a year on the small creek that ran by the house.

The 2nd, and 3rd generation urbanites who move in after the developers got done with the low lying farm land and/or marshes in the flood plains really have no clue about what nature can do.

#22 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 02:42 PM:

Victoria, #21: Yeah, I've watched housing and businesses being built on obvious floodplains in Houston and Nashville both. The thing that gets me is, if you know that flooding happens and you have eyes, you can tell that it's a floodplain, even after it's been developed! Why do people move into those locations? Especially since they tend to be pricey -- you're paying extra for the privilege of being flooded out every few years!

#23 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 05:02 PM:

Lee #22--based on what people were saying after last year's flood, they were thinking things like "They told us it was a 100-year floodplain/400-year floodplain, and we thought that meant it wasn't ever likely to flood." A lot of these people weren't around for the flood they had in Nashville in the late 1970s, either because they moved here from somewhere else, or were too young at the time to really be impressed by things.

Also, a lot of people really are ignorant about topography and geography and such things. Many people spend very little time around rivers and streams, and have very little feel for terrain in different sorts of weather. If you've lived most of your life in carefully-managed subdivisions, in mid-American suburbs, where the impact of weather events isn't very substantial (and children don't notice these things in the same ways an adult might), and have very little experience of the natural world without substantial mediation from technology, it's easy to be entirely without a clue in these matters. They don't much teach geography in the schools anymore, so a lot of people have no room in their head for these sorts of concepts to live, if they weren't put firmly in place by someone at a fairly early age.

I work in an office built on a floodplain, in a bend of the Cumberland River. I can walk (at a slow pace) to the levee in about ten minutes or so(no sidewalk most of the way). I am one of the few people in my office to check and see if we'd be affected if there was a failure of the Wolf Creek Dam. I had co-workers who couldn't understand why our office was closed for four days last May during the flood, when the levee that's just a short walk from here was leaking, and the anonymous creek down the block was flooded across the road.

Developers can sell these things because too many people have nothing at all that resembles a clue.

#24 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 05:20 PM:

Lee and Fidelio, I see the same thing here -- houses built within spitting distance of the local rivers and creeks -- and all downstream from our local dams.

(Thurber wrote a story about this area called "The Day the Dam Broke.")

#25 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 06:17 PM:

Hmmm. Apparently I did get some terrain geography in school, but aside from a unit in 10th-grade Earth Science I can't remember exactly when or where. It seems to be one of those things that I've "just always known"*, which means there's a decent chance I picked it up from random reading as a kid -- pop-science books were a favorite category. Also, I was in Nashville for that late-70s flood (living in a 2nd-floor apartment on a hill, fortunately), and I remember more than one time when Murfreesboro Road has been closed because Mill Creek was up over the roadway. So yeah, I guess I notice more about terrain than perhaps the average city-slicker would, even though I'm a city-slicker too.

* Sort of the way I've "just always known" a lot about the care and feeding of horses even though I've never owned one, because I was horse-crazy as a kid and read extensively on the topic. And occasionally I forget, because I've had this stuff in my head forever, that not everybody does.

#26 ::: Dragoness Eclectic ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 07:56 PM:

I knew this was coming, after this last winter's Snowmageddon. All that snow melt had to go somewhere.

I live down in south Lousiana; been watching this thing the last few weeks. Army Corps of Engineers put out some very scary maps of "how deep it will flood if the spillways AREN'T opened and the levee fails"; I'm convinced those maps are the reason people hereabouts were demanding to know why they were so slow about opening the spillway, rather than protesting the opening as I half expected.

Maybe this time we won't have lawsuits from the oyster lease holders crying about their oyster beds being ruined by the freshwater diversion into Lake Ponchatrain. After Katrina, popular opinion around here is we'd rather you get fresh water in your oysters instead of us getting fresh water in our bedrooms--AGAIN.

It's hard for the poor people living in the spillway--one of the things about being poor is you can only afford to live in the undesirable places. If they were desirable places to live, they'd cost more. In the city, 'undesirable' usually means 'high-crime' or near heavy industry; in rural areas, it means 'no local employers' or 'wasteland' or 'swamp/floodplain'. I don't think they get flood insurance, either--you have to sign a waiver if you have property in the spillway.

At least it's not flooding as fast on the spillway as expected; the drought this spring dried things up so much that the dry ground is just absorbing a lot of the water.

#27 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2011, 09:01 PM:

John M. Berry's ising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1998). That flooding had a lot to do with the Great Depression. It wasn't only the flying away prairie soils in the great drought, it was also great floods further east, reaching as far as Georgia. No food. Very high prices for food.

As Berry describes, the great flood was not a single year phenomenon, any more than the dust bowl was.

It also tells us how the lower 9 in New Orleans believes every time that they are sacrificed even when the dynamite didn't go off, as it did not from the flooding post Katrina. But then, there's fast dynamite and slow dynamite, and we are all living with slow dynamite disasters now.

Love, C.

#28 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2011, 12:30 PM:

I was another of those who was never properly educated when young (getting moved around a lot does that to you.) But I patched up a lot of it when I got older. When my friendly neighborhood river made a record spectacle of itself 21 years back, I was still awestruck--and glad my home was safe. On another such occasion, with another river involved, I got to wonder how a couple rich enough to afford a 2 million dollar home couldn't afford the knowledge not to build it right next to a river.
Now we've got a floodplain filled with malls and industrial parks, not on mounds, just on slabs. I live near the edge of my watershed and will probably be all right--until the Big One hits; at least I've got a table to get under, and a dam and a few channels between me and the ocean.

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