Flood threat passes; corps assesses response

By Matthew Albright, Houma Courier
23 June 2011

MORGAN CITY — Levees performed as designed when the swollen Mississippi River threatened, and the worst of the flood threat has passed, the regional leader of the Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday.

“The system around the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi performed exactly as it was supposed to,” said Col. Ed Fleming, New Orleans district commander. “Although many folks were affected, we didn’t see catastrophic failure or catastrophic flooding like many predicted.”

But Fleming also acknowledged that more could have been done to communicate accurate information to those living in danger’s way.

An emergency operations center set up since April in Morgan City will close, he said. It has been at the heart of efforts to keep waters out of this river city and surrounding parishes. Those efforts included shoring up low back levees and placing a barge across a critical bayou. That sunken barge is credited with keeping floodwaters out of Terrebonne, where emergency levees and sandbag walls were built in communities like Gibson and Bayou Black in anticipation of flooding that never arrived.

Many locals have been critical of corps maps that predicted up to 5 feet of water would make its way into parts of Terrebonne and Lafourche. Those maps didn’t take into account land elevation, levees or other flood-protection efforts.

Many people’s homes are above 5 feet, others are protected by levees, and others depend on drainage systems that would make flooding highly unlikely, despite the maps’ predictions, local officials have said.

“It’s our job to prepare for worst-case scenarios, and that’s what those maps represent,” Fleming said.

It takes time to compile the data that goes into the maps, he said, making it difficult to keep up with fluctuating river levels and other factors that impacted the threat level in a given area.

In the end, he acknowledged, evacuations were ordered and preparations were made in areas where it was not necessary.

Discussions with local officials made him aware of ways the corps can do better, especially in terms of communication with state and local officials, Fleming said.

“We need to have more liaisons, and we need to make sure those liaisons are in better contact,” he said.

Officials said the work paid off, protecting homes and property around Morgan City.

“We’re past the worst in all areas,” Fleming said, but “we’re still in a flood fight.”

Work remains to keep the Mississippi River open for ships and water damage to levees, he said.

A complete picture of the damage will come after floodwaters recede and engineers asses what remains.

The corps has asked for emergency money to repair, if necessary, the levees that keep the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers in check, he said. The price has not yet been calculated.

Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet is among those who met with Fleming. He called the meeting “one of the more useful I’ve been in.”

Still, Claudet criticized the corps maps, which “didn’t really help us at all. They caused some people to panic that didn’t need to.”

Claudet also complimented the sunken-barge tactic, although he maintains the federal government should pay for the work, not just the 75 percent FEMA has already agreed to cover.

Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph had a similar assessment of the corps’ performance. She said the overall strategy, especially the opening of the Morganza and Bonnet Carre spillways, worked well.

But she also said the maps need work.

“Those early forecasts didn’t include existing levee structures, and they alarmed a lot of people,” she said. “I don’t think that was necessary.”

The flooding hit new records up and down the Mississippi Valley, but Louisiana fared well despite the need to open up the spillways. The Morganza opening flooded farmland north of Morgan City, and property damage was limited mostly to those areas, officials said.

The Bonnet Carre Spillway is now closed. One Morganza Spillway gate remained open Thursday afternoon.

The flooding was less than feared in part because of the state was experiencing a drought when the waters began rising, Fleming said. He said a lot of the excess water was sucked up by the dry basins.

In Morgan City, life is beginning to return to normal, even though the flood remains a big part of conversations.

“It’s certainly slowed business down a bit,” said Jackie Price, who runs a framing store on the riverfront. “You had a lot of people coming downtown, but they only had one thing in mind: Climbing the wall and looking at the river.”

The city is protected by a high floodwall that sits across the street from Price’s store. She said a lot of folks in Morgan City and the surrounding communities were concerned about the possibility of flooding. Morgan City has a long history of bad floods, most notably the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood. Low-lying communities were flooded in 1973 as well.

After those floods, the corps vastly improved the levee systems along the Mississippi.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.