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Louisianans along the Mississippi await inevitable

'We took a gamble when we bought here,' says one resident of Butte La Rose, La., which will be flooded if an upriver spillway is opened, as is expected, to ease pressure near New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

May 13, 2011|Tina Susman

BUTTE LA ROSE, LA. — Water is a way of life here. You settle beside a river, on soft, fertile soil barely more than a swamp, and it's understood that you're going to get flooded. But when that flooding is intentional, orchestrated by the government to save the big cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge from their own inundations, it has an especially cruel twist.

"It's depressing. But I can't stop it," Greg Kirsch said Thursday as a maintenance man disconnected the water on his 16-by-80-foot trailer, which sits in the shady depths of the Atchafalaya River Basin. Soon, the trailer would be hauled away for safekeeping on higher ground, and Kirsch's way of life would be another casualty in the slow-motion disaster expected to reach here next week if a spillway is opened to divert water from the flood-swollen Mississippi River.

"That's what the Morganza is for," Kirsch said of the Morganza Spillway about 50 miles north. "We took a gamble when we bought here."

For nearly 40 years, that gamble paid off. The spillway, designed to redirect Mississippi River water to prevent flooding in Baton Rouge and other population centers downstream, was opened just once, in 1973.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 14, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Louisiana flooding: An article in the May 13 Section A about flooding in Louisiana said the flow rate of the Mississippi River that could trigger the opening of the Morganza Spillway is measured in Morganza, La. The measurement takes place in Red River Landing, La.

The amount of water released then was far less than what would probably be released this time, setting the stage for a rise in water levels in the isolated towns dotting the Atchafalaya Basin, a lush region of quiet fishing camps, friendly hamlets linked by dirt roads, and "wildlife crossing" signs on the paved highways.

A tree across the road from Kirsch's trailer illustrates the threat facing those who don't leave. About 8 feet up its trunk, a bright pink ribbon marks the anticipated water level by Monday if the spillway is opened. By Wednesday, the water would be at least 2 feet higher -- high enough to swallow cars and roads, and to flow into people's front doors and over their window sills.

If some people living here feel like they're being sacrificed in favor of others, it's because they are, a choice made when the Morganza was constructed as part of a decades-long effort to shore up flood-control measures after a devastating inundation in 1927. It would be opened only in a dire emergency. Like now.

Officials were expected to decide as early as Friday whether to open the spillway, a move based in part on the volume of water pouring downriver as measured at Morganza, and on the river's level in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The "trigger point" for opening the spillway would be reached when the flow volume is 1.5 million cubic feet per second.

By Thursday, it was moving at 1.41 million cubic feet per second, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, an increase over Wednesday's measurement. By May 23, if the spillway is not opened, the river was forecast to be at 19.5 feet in New Orleans, just 6 inches below the tops of the levees protecting the city.

"I guess the way to look at it is that this is a monumental flood," said Ricky Boyett, an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman, as he watched waves from the Mississippi roar through another spillway near the Morganza. Huge white-capped rapids exploded from the rushing river, and logs and other debris smashed on the banks. On a normal day, the shore would be lined with fishermen, and egrets would scan the usually calm waters for fish. On this day, the only people near the shore were corps officials pondering their next move.

Boyett said he sympathized with people in remote towns like Butte La Rose, who stand to be washed out if waters like this are steered away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans and guided in their direction. In the end, though, choices are made based on how best to protect the most people and keep damage to a minimum.

"We just have to look at what's best for the collective community," said Boyett, adding that even people like him, who spend their lives watching these waters, were stunned by what they were witnessing.

"It's usually just a nice, calm flow. This is a whole new ballgame," he said.

Along the tributaries and other waterways that stand to be flooded if the spillway opens, efforts continued Thursday to prepare for the worst. Prisoners dressed in black-and-white-striped coveralls filled sandbags in Butte La Rose, as earthmovers and other heavy equipment moved soil and sand atop levees protecting small cities and hamlets so tiny they rarely appear on maps.

Chris Wainwright, who moved to Butte La Rose 11 years ago, said he had begun piling sandbags around his home until he realized that if the water rose as high as forecast -- and so far the National Weather Service's river forecasts have been accurate -- he would be filling sandbags for three weeks. So on Thursday, his uncle and brother-in-law came and helped him load up his belongings and put them into storage.

"My house -- it's not the Taj Mahal, but I have a nice little house," said Wainwright, his face red from the midday heat.

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