- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2011

BUTTE LAROSE, La. (AP) — Army Corps of Engineers Col. Ed Fleming leaned over a podium and warned the crowd gathered at a volunteer fire station that where they were standing was projected to be swamped by up to 15 feet of water from Mississippi River flooding. The crowd let out a collective gasp.

“From the ground?” an incredulous resident shouted at the meeting Thursday.

“From the ground,” replied Fleming, head of the corps‘ New Orleans district.

To try to protect heavily populated Baton Rouge and New Orleans from the bulging Mississippi River, federal engineers are close to opening a massive spillway that would flood hundreds of thousands of acres in Louisiana Cajun country.

With that threat looming, some 25,000 people in an area known for small farms, fish camps, crawfish and a drawling French dialect are hurriedly packing their things and worrying that their homes and way of life might soon be drowned.

The corps could open the Morganza floodway north of Baton Rouge as early as this weekend, a move that would relieve pressure on the city’s levee system.

Opening the gates for the first time in 38 years will unleash the Mississippi on a wild ride south to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya River and divert floodwater from the river into the basin’s swamplands, backwater lakes and bayous. Several thousand homes would be at risk of flooding.

Even if engineers decide not to open the spillway, no one seems to doubt that a major flood is bound for Butte LaRose, Krotz Springs, the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City and other swampland communities in the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Morganza and the nearby Old River Control Structure were built in the 1950s to keep the Mississippi on its current course through New Orleans, one of the world’s busiest ports. If the river rises much higher at New Orleans, the Coast Guard said Thursday it would consider restrictions on shipping, including potentially closing the channel to the largest, heaviest ships.

Shipping interests have pushed for the opening of the Morganza, saying the move would keep ships cruising. If the river closes, history shows the costs grow quickly into staggering figures.

In 2008, a 100-mile stretch of the river was closed for six days after a tugboat pushing a barge collided with a tanker ship, spilling about 500,000 gallons of fuel and stacking up ships. The Port of New Orleans, citing an economic impact study it commissioned, estimated the shutdown cost the national economy up to $275 million a day.

For the people of this region, river flooding and hurricanes are familiar hazards. Floodwaters damaged or destroyed many homes and fishing camps in Butte LaRose in 1973, the last time the corps opened the Morganza.

Maxim Doucet was born that year. His parents stayed put, even when the floodwaters started lapping at the rear of their grocery store.

Doucet has no intention of leaving town this time, either. The water didn’t seep into the store when the flood gauge hit 27 feet in 1973, so Doucet can’t believe the center of town will be submerged in 15 feet of water.

While most of his neighbors were packing up, Doucet deployed a team of workers and heavy machinery to erect a 6-foot levee around his home on the banks of the Atchafalaya River. A dump truck hauled in roughly 1,000 cubic yards of clay for a bulldozer and front-end loader to fashion a protective ring around the rear of Doucet’s three-story house.

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