Decision on Morganza opening still pending; spillway evacuated

Deidre Cruse

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still had not made a decision on whether to open the Morganza Spillway as potentially record-level floodwaters push down the Mississippi River toward Louisiana, Emergency Preparedness Director Laurie Doiron said Monday.

Mississippi River levees, patrolled daily, continue to look strong enough to hold back the wall of water, officials said. According to the National Weather Service River Forecast Center, at 12:54 p.m. Monday (May 9), the Mississippi stood at 40.6 feet, up 1.2 feet over the previous 24 hours, The level is expected to rise to 44.7 feet by Friday, and crest at 47.5 feet on Sunday, May 22. The levees are protective to a level of 50 to 51 feet, Doiron said.

The biggest worry for Iberville Parish is backwater flooding in low-lying areas along the Intracoastal Waterway and in the Atchafalay Basin.

As a precaution, the parish evacuated people and livestock from the spillway side of the Atchafalaya Basin over the weekend, the emergency preparedness director said.

“Anybody on the spillway side of the levee has been asked to move equipment, livestock, seed, anything,” Doiron said. “Judging from everything coming across the levee [this weekend], they were doing a good job of it.”

There are some 200 residences, mainly camps, on the spillway side. People were using fourwheelers and boats to remove valuables from the area.

“The landings were full Saturday,” Doiron said. “I

Levees, improved since the 1973 flood, are designed to protect the spillway side to a level of 33.8-34 feet, Doiron said. She said  the lowest point, at the Bayou Sorrel Locks, are safe to 24 feet and the Corps of Engineers is ready to do some emergency preparation work to improve protection at there. Even if Morganza were opened, water levels are projected to rise to only 21.5 feet at the locks, she said.

Even if the Corps does not go over the Morganza lock, floodwaters are expected to overtop the structure, Doiron said.

On the land side of the Basin, the water level stood at a low 3.2 feet, the director said, “which is really good.” She said there is no idea what level the crest might be on the land side, or what opening Morganza might do to levels there.

“That's the magic number everybody would love to know,” she  said.

Doiron noted the Corps of Engineers maintains three structures on the Lower Mississippi River:

– The Old River Control Structure, which, as congressionally mandated, sends 30 percent of the water coming down the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya and 70 percent into the Mississippi through gates which are adjusted daily.

– The Morganza Spillway, which has been opened only once since it was built, for the 1973 flood.

– The Bonnet Carre Spillway above New Orleans, which has been opened nine times since it was built in 1931, including as recently as 2008. The Corps began opening some Bonnet Carre gates on Monday.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bobby Jindal asked the Corps to release a map outlining the areas and residents that would be affected by the opening of Morganza.

Iberville was one of five parishes added to a list of those in a state of emergency in preparation for the rising waters. Ascension, Assumption, East Baton Rouge and West Feliciana were the others.

Iberville was one of 22 parishes listed in a presidential declaration of emergency, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide assistance.