May 15, 2011 in Nation/World

Spillway used to spare major Louisiana cities

Tina Susman Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

People watch as water diverted from the Mississippi River spills through a bay in the Morganza Spillway in Morganza, La., on Saturday.
(Full-size photo)

NEW ORLEANS – In a last-ditch move to relieve stress on levees burdened by floodwaters, the Army Corps of Engineers opened a major Mississippi River floodgate Saturday for the first time in nearly 40 years, funneling water toward farmland and small communities to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge from inundations.

At 3 p.m., a crane lifted the metal teeth on one of the Morganza Spillway’s 125 gates, and an avalanche of water began rushing through, forming a massive and fast-growing puddle on land that minutes earlier had been dry. Water branched out over the grassy floodplain southward, toward isolated hamlets, fishing and hunting camps and towns tucked among the bayous.

It was the first time since 1973 the corps has resorted to opening the Morganza Spillway, about 40 miles north of the state capital, Baton Rouge, and 185 miles upstream from New Orleans. The move underscored the potential for catastrophe if the rain-swollen Mississippi were allowed to run unfettered through the state’s two largest cities.

“The system is under tremendous pressure, and it’s going to be under tremendous pressure for quite a long time,” said the corps’ Mississippi division commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, at a news conference shortly before the gate was lifted. “This system was really designed back in the 1930s to protect lives, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re using every flood control tool we have.”

Walsh and Lt. Col. Ed Fleming, the New Orleans district commander of the corps, outlined a mathematical formula that would determine how many more gates must open before the levees downstream are considered safe.

Eventually, enough gates to reduce the Mississippi’s flow by 125,000 cubic feet per second will be opened, a process that will take several days, to reduce the chances of people and wildlife being caught by the rising waters.

For several days, local officials have urged people living in the area to leave. Prison inmates have been drafted to fill sandbags, which are stacked around homes and atop levees running through communities destined to receive from 5 to 25 feet of water in the coming days. Trailers hauling cattle and horses, U-Hauls filled with furniture, and trucks towing away mobile homes have been plying the narrow roads.

Tim Matte, the mayor of Morgan City, said people in the area – who each year are reminded in writing that they live in a floodplain – understood the spillway had to open.

“They’ve taken it as much in stride as you can when your home’s being flooded,” said Matte.

The spillway’s opening means that when the Mississippi River crests in New Orleans on May 23, instead of reaching 19.5 feet – 6 inches below the top of the armored levees protecting the city – it will rise to just 17 feet.

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