When Sands began to talk about opening the spillway that year because the raging Mississippi was threatening to undermine the control structure in Avoyelles Parish at Old River, Brownell objected strenuously.
“Opening the floodway could wipe out Morgan City,” the mayor argued.
Sands agreed, but said he had no choice.
He replied with words to the effect: “Doc, if my choice is to wipe out Morgan City or wipe out New Orleans, what do you think I’m going to do?”
As it turned out, neither place was wiped out, but it was a very narrow thing at Morgan City. Makeshift additions to the levee held the Atchafalaya back, but it crept to within an inch of the top of the plywood and sandbags and rubble that had been hastily put up. Behind the town, a barge sunk in Bayou Boeuf created enough barrier that backwater flooding was not the disaster it could have been.
This year the choice again has been between risking communities in and close to the Atchafalaya Basin or the big cities on the Mississippi and once again the Atchafalaya communities are the ones watching the water rise around them as the gates divert millions of gallons of flood water away from New Orleans.
That, of course, is the way the system was designed to work, but the Morganza gates have been opened so infrequently that people began to think themselves safe building and living in a floodway – which most of the Atchafalaya Basin is.
The spillway gates are so named because they are near the town of Morganza in Pointe Coupee Parish. The spillway was built after Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928 to authorize the Corps of Engineers to build the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which was completed in 1931 about 30 miles above New Orleans to divert water into Lake Pontchartrain; the Birds Point floodway in southeast Missouri just below the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers; and the Morganza Floodway. Its control structure was finished in 1954. It is now used in conjunction with the Old River Control structure, finished in 1963 at Simmesport, which is used to keep the shorter, straighter Atchafalaya River from capturing most of the water from the Mississippi River.
This is only the second time that the Morganza gates have been opened, although it has been discussed during at least four other floods. The first time was on April 17, 1973. Forty of the 125 gates were eventually opened that spring.
The Corps discussed opening them again during the floods of 1983, 1993, 1997, and most recently in 2008.
When the gates are opened, Mississippi River water flows into the Morganza Floodway, which is about 20 miles long and five miles wide, and then hopefully runs between two guide levees into the Atchafalaya Basin near Krotz Springs. Once in the Basin the water moves toward the Gulf of Mexico, squeezing through an ever-narrowing gap until it reaches the Morgan City area.
Worsening things, over the years since 1973 the Atchafalaya Basin has seen considerable silting in many places, meaning that it cannot hold as much water as it once did. That means the flood waters can go higher than they did then, adding stress to the levees that are supposed to protect the places that are threatened.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.