Early Thoughts on the Mississippi River Flooding of 2011

Author: Gary Scronce, Director of Preparedness Programs, IEM

Since 1986, I have lived in southern Louisiana just 2 miles from an Atchafalaya Basin Levee and crossed the mighty Mississippi River at least twice a day. Given this, it is only natural to consider the risk of flooding where my family and I live, particularly in the springtime. We all knew from watching the heavy snowfalls in the Midwest and upper Midwest during winter that the river was likely to rise this year. What we had not anticipated was all of the thunderstorm activity that swept across the same areas and especially through the Ohio River Valley this spring. We have watched what has happened to the north of us and now have an understanding of what is going to reach southern Louisiana thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Weather Service River Forecast Center for the Lower Mississippi, and our local news stations and newspapers.

For those not familiar with the lower Mississippi area and the flood control structures in place, one of the best graphic depictions I have seen is located here:

http://media.2theadvocate.com/documents/MissRivGraphicRevised050911.pdf

Of course, a lot of news stories have been associated with the recent opening the Bonnet Carre’ Spillway closer to New Orleans and the possibility of opening the Morganza Spillway. Much like the action taken to breach levees to flood farmland in Missouri to alleviate flooding in the Cairo, Illinois area to protect a larger population, opening the Morganza Spillway is not a decision that is being taken lightly. It is designed to protect the more populous areas of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and other cities immediately alongside the Mississippi River. The graphic shown here illustrates what the likely consequences will be of opening the Morganza Spillway 50 percent:

http://media.2theadvocate.com/documents/050811+Morganza+flooding+ma.pdf

In anticipation of the Morganza Spillway opening, there has been local news coverage over the last few days of folks proactively clearing out whatever valuables they could from their camps and homes in the spillway by boat. It is not often you see someone speeding along in an aluminum fishing boat in the Atchafalaya Basin with a riding lawnmower at the front and large pieces of furniture in tow. There will be plenty more of those occurrences taking place over the next few days.

At the end of a couple of laps between a foot bridge across our bayou and the main street through town that crosses the same bayou, I noticed that my neighbors across the bayou had a camp (think small house) on a trailer behind the fence where they keep horses. To get it there, they had just moved their camp onto a large trailer inside the basin, brought it up over the Atchafalaya Levee and couple of miles across farmland! It made sense and was going to be cheaper than rebuilding it from scratch to move it out and then back in later on.

So in the context of all this news I wanted to offer a few thoughts. Just because your home is protected by a levee system, and you may not be required by the bank to buy flood insurance, it is worth thinking about. Also, because of potential flooding, and many other potential risks that almost certainly apply regardless of where you live, you should take the time to prepare an evacuation kit. A number of years ago, my wife bought a portable safe to keep at our house to store copies of all the documents we might need if we had to evacuate our home because of a disaster. Things like loan papers, mortgages, recent tax records, birth certificates, insurance policies, etc., that you might need to prove who you are, where you live, what you need to pay your bills and how to access your assets if needed. That is the minimum you should do if you have not already done so.

Also consider what else could not be replaced if your home were destroyed and how to move it—things like family photographs. In general, everyone should be prepared to take care of themselves and their families for the first 72 hours after a disaster.

Thinking ahead a bit more, at the end of an article written by Tom Watkins for CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/05/09/mississippi.river.flooding.impact/), there were some thoughts offered by Roy Dakka, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Geoinformatics at Louisiana State University. I believe these bear some further thinking and will likely be at the center of policy debates after this event is over:

“There are unintended consequences that are going to happen that we can’t possibly even fathom right now,” he said. “We just have to be ready for it, and get people out of the way.”

If wide-scale flooding occurs, the resulting economic damage will be felt for years, he predicted. “Any city that ever floods never really returns economically to where it once was because people don’t have confidence, people don’t want to put businesses there. New Orleans is the big example.”

Already, even before the slow-motion disaster has unfolded, policymakers should have learned some lessons, he said. One of them is that flood plains should not have been developed.

“Nature wins in the end,” he said, “And I just hope that we’ve done enough planning that we can basically at least hold it back this one more time.”

“We should really be thinking about whether we want to continue to live in really stupid places, because nature is going to exploit our stupidity,” Dakka said.

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