With Morganza in play, Mississippi to crest at 45''; focus shifts to Atchafalaya

Deidre Cruse

Water gushed through as the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers opened single gate of the Morganza Spillway at 3 p.m. to relieve pressure on local levees, lower the river stage and reduce the velocity of the river current as record floodwaters surge toward Baton Rouge, Iberville Parish and points south.

By Monday morning, water pouring through 11 gates was poised to flood a few camps in the spillway near Ramah and was driving deer, wild hogs and other animals to higher ground. Residents in the White Castle and Bayou Pigeon areas were sandbagging against backwater flooding. By the end of the day, the Corps had opened 15 of the 125 gates at Morganza.

The Mississippi was expected to crest Wednesday at 44.8 feet, several days earlier and more than two and a half feet lower than the record level the National Weather Service had predicted. The river was at 44.7 feet at 10:30 a,m., Tuesday up 0.1 feet over the previous 24 hours.

Before the opening, the Weather Service had predicted a crest Sunday at 47.5 feet, above the 1927 record level of 47.28 feet. A 44.8-foot crest still would be the second-highest crest recorded since 1927.

Ferry service at Plaquemine and White Castle was suspended last week because of the high water.

Marine traffic into the Atchafalaya Basin was halted Monday in anticipation of the closure of the Port Allen Lock when the river crests, Iberville Emergency Preparedness Director Laurie Doiron said.

Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. told a parishwiide meeting of officials, emergency responders and chemical plant representatives he had pressed the issue with the governor because he did not want to see barges carrying chemicals caught in the Intracoastal Waterway during the high water.

This is only the second time the Corps of Engineers has opened Morganza since the facility was built in 1954. That was in 1973.

Doiron said each gate diverts 10,000 cubic feet of water a second (cfs) from the Mississippi River and into the Atchafalaya.

Corps officials said they plan to open Morganza as much as a quarter of the way, as needed, to keep the Mississippi River at 1.5 million cfs. They had discussed opening the structure halfway.

In lay terms, a cubic foot of water contains 7.48 gallons of water, and a gallon of water weighs 8.35 feet. Each open gate, therefore, releases  approximately78,500 gallons or 624,580 pounds of water a second, or 4.71 million gallons nearly 37.5 million pounds of water a minute. The 15 open gates release 1.122 million gallons weighing nearly 4.7 tons a second, and nearly 67.32 million gallons weighing more than 281 tons a minute.

Now, the focus has shifted to the Atchafalaya Basin, where water released at Morganza will flood the spillway side and increase the possibility of backwater flooding in the southern part of the parish.

Iberville Parish Council President Matthew H. Jewell of Maringouin said late Monday afternoon his camp on Black Bayou and about 14 others in the spillway Ramah were about to go under.

“This is going to be one for the history books, I believe,” Jewell said as he returned from the area late Monday afternoon. Water was within four inches of his camphouse, which sits five feet off the ground and has never flooded since it was built in 1987.

The Mississippi crested in Baton Rouge at 41.6 feet in 1973, at 43.7 feet in 1997 and at 43.09 feet in 2008.

Residents in areas back of White Castle, in the Lone Star and New Camp Road areas near the boat landing near La. 993, have been laying in more parish-supplied sandbags than in other areas, Iberville Emergency Director Laurie Doiron said.

“It's backing up a little bit,” Parish Councilman Mitchel J. Ourso Sr. of White Castle reported from his area Monday. “...There are a few houses in Bayou Pigeon that we know are going to take a little water.”

“For the most part, we're fine,” said White Castle Mayor Gerald Jamarr Williams. “We're keeping a close eye on Morgan City and Pierre Part,” as well as following daily updates from the state and the parish.

“I believe we're in really good shape. I don't know how much backwater we're going to get,” Parish Councilman Louis R. “Pete” Kelley Jr. of Bayou Sorrel said. “The Corps of Engineers is not looking for us to get a whole lot.”

“Bayou Sorrel is very, very dry,” Councilman Kelley said. “There's no water in the ditches. As long as the rain don't [sic] come, I think we're in good shape.”

He said a barge sunk at Bayou Chene, a canal near Morgan City, should hold down backwater flooding, as it did during the 1973 flood. Pilings driven on either side of the barge have blocked off the canal by 90 percent, he said.

Commercial fishing is continuing, Kelley said.

Belle River, Stevensville and other areas south of here likely will see high water, Kelley said.

Governor Bobby Jindal estimated 25,000 residents and 2,000 structures in the Atchafalaya Basin would be face flooding by water released at Morganza.

Iberville residents cleared out some 200 camps and a few houses on the spillway side of the Basin last week .

Maj. Johnny Blanchard of the Iberville Sheriff's Office said Monday residents had continued to move their possessions out and secure their camps over the weekend.

“They're moving houseboats inside the levees to get away from high waters,” Blanchard said, estimating 40 or 50 had been moved. “They're constantly moving them in. There were at least 10 Saturday.”

Council President Jewell said he had lashed his camphouse down with mobile home ropes.

“When the water reaches Ramah, it's going to rise really fast,” he said. “We're prepared for it, but you never know what it's going to do. We tied it down. I hope the current is not so bad as to wash it off its pilings.”

Jewell said some 600 deer fled the North Farms area of the Sherbourne Wildlife management Area of North Iberville. He said raccoons, bobcats and coyotes also have been spotted, but so far no bears.

Sheriff Brent Allain said deputies patrolling the parish have reported more deer than anything, but also hogs.

“The wildlife is coming out,” Major Blanchard reported after patrolling the Bayou Sorrel and Bayou Pigeon areas Monday. “People are taking pictures of them, causing some stuff.”

Jewell said no homes are in danger in North Iberville.

“That would only happen if there is a levee breach,” he said. “The levee seems to be in really good shape.”

Other North End officials – Parish Councilman Timothy J. Vallet of Grosse Tete, Maringouin Mayor John F. Overton and Rosedale Mayor Lawrence “Football” Badeau –  echoed that assessment, as did others from other parts of the parish.

“It's a wait and see process,” Overton said.

“We're keeping an eye on the flood level of the river,” St. Gabriel Mayor George L. Grace said. “It's not really rising too much from what I can see.”

“We're looking good so far,” Sheriff Allain said. “...We're okay in Iberville.”