Monday, May 9, 2011

Army Corps battles rising Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans

New Orleans  Waging war against flooding of historic proportions that has already affected thousands of people in eight Midwestern and Southern states, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a spillway Monday north of New Orleans to calm the rising Mississippi River.
A crowd gathered near the entrance to the Bonnet Carré Spillway to watch workers using cranes slide open the gates to the flood control system, which was built beginning in 1929 after a devastating flood. The spillway, like another that could be opened next week, is designed to divert floodwater away from New Orleans and slow the raging river to protect the low-lying city.
Time magazine photos: Floodwaters rise along Mississippi

Upstream in Memphis, Tennessee, residents and authorities anxiously waited for the Mississippi to crest at a near-record 14 feet above flood stage.
And in between, their counterparts in Mississippi and Louisiana continued to prepare for the flooding under the protection of a system of levees and floodgates that Corps' officials said were holding up well considering the unprecedented pressure they are enduring.
Gallery: Floods swamp Midwest and South
Water levels on the Mississippi
Reporter waist deep in Mississippi River
Memphis braces for record flood
"This water that we're seeing coming by is moving 2 million cubic feet per second," said Col. Vernie Reichling, Corps of Engineers' Memphis District commander, of the situation Sunday outside that city. "To use an analogy, in one second that water would fill up a football field 44 feet deep."
That means there's no time to relax, said Col. Ed Fleming, commander of the Corps' New Orleans District.
"There is no doubt that we are stressing the system," he said. "These are historic flows."
In Memphis, where the Mississippi had covered the lowest parts of the city's historic Beale Street, about 400 people had evacuated from their at-risk homes, while some 1,300 remained in low-lying areas, Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr. said earlier.
"It's sort of tortuous; we've been waiting so long. It's hard keeping people's attention. It's warning fatigue, if you will," Wharton said. "But we're ready for it."
The river is the highest it's been since 1937 when it crested at 48.7 feet -- 14.7 feet above flood stage -- at Memphis. That flood killed 500 people and inundated 20 million acres of land, Reichling said.
"It's a very powerful river. It looks like it's running very slowly, but it has a very strong current," said Bob Nations, director of preparedness in Shelby County, Tennessee, which includes Memphis. "We still don't know (exactly what) the river might do."
Flooding was still causing problems in Missouri and southern Illinois, even though the crest has moved south.
In Murphysboro, Illinois, CNN iReporter Robert Icenogle said a swollen creek is inundating a church and band shell, while threatening to wash out telephone poles.
"We cannot get to the parks, which is underwater, or to other towns," he said. "Most of the roads are closed, plus the water sewage plant is getting sandbagged."
"(If) the sewage plant shuts down, we won't have tap water to bathe in or drink," he added.
The Corps intentionally breached a levee in Missouri as part of its effort to reduce the pressure on other levees, flooding 130,000 acres of agricultural land over the objection of state officials and some farmers.
West Memphis awaits river to crest
Tough choices in flood control
Extreme floods in Midwest
Illinois town vs. Missouri farmers
"I'm very sad. I look at that and I don't have a home," Marilynn Nally said, pointing to her flooded family farm. "I feel like we're having to suffer for somebody else."
About 25 miles away in Metropolis, Illinois, Eloise Burton mourned the loss of her home.
"It's sad to think about all these years; we've lost everything," she told CNN affiliate WPSD-TV in Paducah, Kentucky, on Sunday.
In Memphis, the Corps' 150 inspectors haven't found any sign of trouble beyond small amounts of water seeping under some levees and dribbling over others near the White River, according to Reichling.
And while one person has been arrested for allegedly trying to steal from an evacuated residence, Shelby County officials Nations said that cooperation with citizens and good teamwork among government agencies has made for few headaches.
Much of the flooding in Memphis has come from tributaries unable to dump their water into the Mississippi.
Nicholas Pegues, an East Memphis resident who lives near the Wolf River, said he's seen extensive flooding and homes left uninhabitable by the water as he's traveled through the region.
"It's affecting daily life tremendously," said Pegues, a Shelby County elections' division employee who submitted photos of the flooding to CNN iReport. "It is pretty severe downtown. ... I know a lot of ... people have lost their homes."
The flooding also hit sections of southwest Memphis along the Nonconnah Creek.
"It's just bad," James Black told CNN affiliate WREG-TV in Memphis. "Like I say, it's an act of God. What can you do in an act of God?"
Wharton, the mayor, said the flooding had not yet caused major disruptions in the city, and he did not expect it to, even though National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Borghoff said it is possible the river won't fall below flood stage until June around Memphis.
Pegues said the flood fight has had an upside.
"The mood is disappointing, but people are helping each other," Pegues said. "They're putting sandbags in, the churches are opening up their doors, and (people) are opening up their homes to the elderly."
In Mississippi, where the river's crest is not expected to begin arriving until next week, the operator of a nuclear plant expressed concerns that rising water could cut off an access road to the facility.
However, there was no plan to shut down the plant and no immediate cause for concern over the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Station in Port Gibson, Mississippi, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Agency said Monday.
The Corps' decision to open the Bonnet Carré Spillway was part of its overall plan to reduce pressure on the levee system and reduce river levels to reduce the threat to low-lying New Orleans and other southern Louisiana communities.
But the Corps was also considering opening a second spillway that would flood populated areas and could put Morgan City, Louisiana, at risk.
The spillway opened Monday can accommodate about 1.87 million gallons of water per second, diverting water from the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico by way of Lake Pontchartrain.
Even with opening the spillway, the Corps predicted widespread flooding along the system designed to keep the high waters outside the New Orleans.
Despite a forecast of record or near-record crests all along the Mississippi, Corps officials said they expect nothing like the widespread and devastating flooding that occurred along the river in 1927 and again in 1937.
The 1927 flood began near Memphis in the fall of 1926 and did not end until the following August, according to a National Weather Service report on the disaster. It devastated the levee system and flooded 165 million acres of land, sweeping 600,000 people from their homes. It came at a cost of 246 lives and the equivalent of nearly $624 million in 2011 dollars.
As a result of that flood, the report said, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928. That prompted a massive public works programs to build a system of levees and other structures designed to hold back the river more effectively. While untested, they were designed to meet the pressures similar to the 1937 flood, Reichling said.
"In 1937, these levees were nowhere near the height they are today," he said. "Our levees are considerably higher, they're very strong, our flood walls are very good."
The flooding in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys is largely the byproduct of torrential rains throughout the region. Over one two-week stretch, there was about 600% more precipitation than usual, Reichling said.
The weather now appears to be working in the flood fighters' favor.
Only minimal rain is expected over the coming days, with daytime temperatures forecast to be in the upper 80s and 90s through Thursday, at which point the water levels should begin to creep back down.
But the Corps isn't going to back down anytime soon in watching over its powerful and sometimes unruly charge.
"It's a historic time we're in all along the Mississippi River," Fleming said.

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