State prepares for water

By Advocate Staff Report
5 May 2011

Mississippi River water encroaches upon the levee system at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola ferry landing Thursday, May 5, 2011.

Mississippi River water encroaches upon the levee system at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola ferry landing Thursday, May 5, 2011.(Richard Alan Hannon/The Advocate)

Corps: Bonnet Carre Spillway to open Monday

The Bonnet Carré Spillway will be opened on Monday, May 9, due to high water on the Mississippi River, according to a news release Thursday from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The spillway opening will begin at 8 a.m. and the public can watch it at the Bonnet Carre Spillway Project Office, 16302 River Road in Norco, the news release says.

View a PDF of Controlling the Mighty River

The spillway could be open for two to four weeks and it will help relieve pressure on the river levees, lower river stages and help slow down the water headed south.

The decision to open the spillway is made by Mississippi River Commission President Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the corps’ Mississippi Valley Division in Vicksburg, Miss.

No decision on opening the Morganza Spillway has been made, Gov. Bobby Jindal said at a Thursday news conference updating federal, state and local government plans.

In other developments Thursday:

–Louisiana State Penitentiary Warden Burl Cain said inmates will be evacuated from the prison starting Monday as the Mississippi River inches higher on protective levees.

As many as 2,000 and 3,000 inmates may be moved off the prison grounds and placed in other state Department of Corrections facilities across Louisiana.

The Mississippi River is expected to crest at 65.5 feet on May 23 at Angola. At 9 a.m. Thursday, river levels were at 53.6 feet, according to the National Weather Service. The previous high crest at the prison was 62.3 feet in March 1997, officials said.

The 18,000-acre prison has 12 miles of river levees protecting more than 5,000 inmates and 1,400 employees.

–The new John James Audubon Bridge over the Mississippi River was opened to traffic, a move also prompted by the rising water.

The $408 million bridge — which connects Pointe Coupee and West Feliciana parishes — was opened about a month ahead of schedule because of concerns about the rising river’s effect on the New Roads-St. Francisville ferry, which was permanently closed Thursday morning.

The bridge opening is one of  many measures being taken because of floodwaters coming down the Mississippi.

The high water is the result of heavy rain in the lower Ohio River Valley area, according to the National Weather Service River Forecast Center in Slidell.

Mississippi River levels are expected to crest on May 23 at 47.5 feet in Baton Rouge. At 9 a.m. Thursday, river levels were at 36.3 feet in Baton Rouge.

The river is threatening to crest at levels not seen in 84 years. On Wednesday, Jindal called out 150 Louisiana National Guard members for flood protection work and asked for federal activation of another 1,500 soldiers for reinforcement purposes.

“We have not seen this level of water since back in 1927 in many areas,” he said Wednesday afternoon in Baton Rouge. “We know our levee district resources are going to be stretched.”

Jindal, representatives rom the Corps of Engineers and state levee boards had taken a helicopter flight over Mississippi River levees Wednesday morning.

“Right now, the corps is not anticipating the overtopping of their mainline levees on the Mississippi River or Atchafalaya River,” Jindal said.

Down below, the seriousness of the Mississippi’s threat could be seen in areas already experiencing high water levels. Here and there, water was starting to overtop small initial levees at the Morganza Floodway upriver from Baton Rouge.

“You know it’s going to get worse,” Jindal said. The low-lying front levee in the floodway helps protect land that is used for agriculture from normal spring floods, but it was also overtopped during the Mississippi’s 2008 high water episode.

“The water is still several days away as far as cresting,” Jindal said. “The fact that you already see water over that (small) levee shows you how serious this can be.”

The governor and state officials planned to meet with corps representatives Thursday to get updated information about what effects opening of certain spillways along the river could have on Louisiana residents and Mississippi River water levels.

Jindal gave assurances that although water levels in many areas along the river are expected to break records dating back to the Great Flood of 1927, there’s a lot more levee and flood protection now than then.

In Baton Rouge, the river is expected to crest at 47.5 feet on May 23. The levees around Baton Rouge range from 47.3 to 51 feet and the city-parish already has plans for sandbags and other measures to heighten the low spots as needed.

In another development Wednesday, Atchafalaya Basin Levee District commissioners invited the presidents and sheriffs of seven parishes to join with them in preparing for dealing with a Mississippi River swollen with an enormous spring flood.

The high water “should stay within the levees,” Ted Eilts, Corps of Engineers’ area engineer for Lafayette, reassured those attending the gathering in the Levee District’s Port Allen headquarters.

Levee District President John Grezaffi said the corps intends to open the Bonnet Carré Spillway as early as Monday to relieve high water levels near New Orleans. The Mississippi River’s capacity was at 68 percent in Baton Rouge and 69 percent in New Orleans on Wednesday, Eilts said. 

Depending on rain forecasts, Eilts said, there’s a “pretty good chance” the corps will open the Morganza Floodway control structure to allow some water from the Mississippi River to flow through the spillway into the Atchafalaya River.

The Morganza flood control structure, a type of dam with gates that can be opened to allow high water to pass through, hasn’t been opened to deal with Mississippi River flooding since 1973, said Will Tyson, Levee District executive director. 

Tyson warned that opening the Morganza Floodway could potentially cause backwater flooding in areas such as Stephensville, near Morgan City, but he’s still not sure how much water the corps would release into the spillway and beyond to the Atchafalaya River. 

“I’m just hoping that the corps would go ahead and make that decision because your people are asking you questions and we really can’t answer them,” Grezaffi said. 

Eilts said the crest — or highest water level — at Red River Landing upriver from the Morganza Floodway, is projected at 65.5 feet, higher than the water gauge there has ever recorded. 

Jim Ferguson, chief engineer for the East Baton Rouge Department of Public Works’ Engineering Division, said he had the Baton Rouge portion of the levee surveyed last week, finding that it appears the lowest point on the levee is 47.3 feet, just west of the Charles W. Lamar Jr. YMCA Branch downtown.

Tyson said engineers from LSU planned to begin surveying levees early Thursday morning to ensure that authorities are working with accurate, updated heights.

Officials plan to place machine-made sandbags on any segments of levees that are not high enough for projected water levels, Grezaffi said. 

Pointe Coupee Parish Sheriff Beauregard “Bud” Torres said he is working with West Feliciana Sheriff Austin Daniel to help make sandbags in Ravenswood near New Roads with labor from prison or jail inmates drawn from the ranks of work release and trusty programs.

Torres said the Levee District may move one of the two sandbag machines in Ravenswood to a more convenient location in West Baton Rouge Parish. 

Torres said Pointe Coupee residents who live near the levees should stay prepared to evacuate in the event that the levees are not high enough to protect against flooding.

Grezaffi also asked parish sheriffs to prohibit anyone unaffiliated with the corps or the Levee District from getting onto the levees.  

Also during the session, the Levee District board gave Grezaffi and Tyson permission to act as they see fit during the high water emergency without consulting the board about every decision. 

“We’re going to do everything possible to see that our people are safe,” Grezaffi said. 

Other developments Wednesday related to the Mississippi River’s flood threat included:

EAST BANK: Steve Wilson, president of the Pontchartrain Levee District, said no new issues have arisen along the east bank of the Mississippi River from north of LSU to St. Charles Parish.

“Duncan Point is fine and doing exactly what it’s supposed to do,” he said referring to work done last weekend along the levee near Farr Park. The dirt, fabric and sandbags are allowing any seeping water to drain to the nearby ditch while the soil stays in place.

WEST BANK: West Baton Rouge Parish President Riley Berthelot Jr. said his parish expects a crest of 47.5 feet, but protection levees in the parish range from 47 to 50 feet in height.

He said the parish is keeping a close eye on mainly the north end of the parish, where there are about 20 relief wells. These give water that gets pushed under the levee by the force of the river some place to go.

“The relief wells put a lot of water into our drainage system,” Berthelot said.

The parish is working with the state and the corps to monitor the levees for any problems or sand boils — where water pushes under the levees and surfaces on the landward side.

Most times these are not a problem, but they are monitored in case they show signs of weakening the levees themselves.

POINTE COUPEE: Pointe Coupee Parish Sheriff’s Capt. Steve Juge said Atchafalaya Basin Levee District enforcement officers have switched to night shifts and are patrolling a 110-mile stretch between the Atchafalaya River and the Mississippi River after dark.

The Pointe Coupee Sheriff’s Office has assigned two deputies to patrol the levees during the day, Juge said.