Long before it faced Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Chinese Army in Korea, the North Vietnamese or Saddam Hussein, the US Army Corps of Engineers was at war with Mother Nature — that’s the way the Corps describes it in its publications. No battle has been more expensive, or consumed more of its energy, than its fight to control the Mississippi River. The system it has built to do this is a monument to the industrial mind-set, and a testament to the inevitable crash of industrial over-reach. Whether this is the week that this particular edifice will fall remains to be seen — and will be a very close thing.
The Corps is facing right now what they call a Project Flood on the Mississippi, a term of the engineering art (rough translation: “Holy Crap!”) meaning a flood that meets, and hopefully does not exceed, the worst conditions taken into account by the design of the levees, dams, floodgates and whatever else the Corps has built to “manage” the Mississippi (oxymoron alert).
In the face of a flooding challenge of this magnitude, the Corps has three relief valves available to it to dial back the pressure on its last-ditch defenses along the lower river, which is dense with refineries, factories, ports and lots and lots of people. These are enormous spillways, designed to divert excess water from the river’s course, labelled as such and understood as such since they were built in the 1930s forward: they are at Birds Point-New Madrid, Missouri, below Cairo, Illinois; at Morganza, Mississippi; and just north of New Orleans at the Bonnet Carre Floodway.
The Corps blew the Birds Point levee last week, flooding hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in order to take pressure off the whole system. Contrary to the standard coverage of the fight-loving media (town v. farm! FIGHT! Black v. white! FIGHT! Illinois v. Missouri! FIGHT!) this was not done simply to save Cairo, which it mostly did, but to ease pressure on the whole system. And it was not, as most news presentations implied, something the Corps just thought of; since shortly after the great flood of 1927, the tactic has been defined as necessary given a certain set of conditions.
The Corps began opening the Bonnet Carre floodway this week, in an attempt to protect the New Orleans river levees by inundating Lake Ponchartrain with the foul floodwaters of the Mississippi. One cannot help recall that it was the failure of levees holding back Lake Ponchartain that caused most of the misery after Katrina.
And in the next day or so, the Corps will (it won’t say the decision is made yet, but it must) open the Morganza Spillway, for the second time in the structure’s history, and then hope for the best.
The Morganza was built to protect the Old River Control Structures (See “Mississippi Rising: Apocalypse Now?”), which are not far downstream, and whose failure could allow the Mississippi to permanently change its course, with catastrophic consequences for the United States. The only other time the Morganza has been opened was in the flood of 1973, when the Old River structures were in mortal peril. And with the floodway open, the Old River structures were seriously undermined and partially overwashed.
This flood is worse. So there really is no doubt that the spillway will be used. It will send a torrent of water larger than Niagara Falls down 200 miles of the Atchafalaya River to Morgan City, Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. Which is, ironically, precisely what the Control Structures are intended to prevent. Along the way it will inundate another 100,000 acres of cropland, taking it out of production for at least this year. It may take out a number of farmers permanently, because their insurance pays them for damages done by an act of God (an odd way to think of a deadly natural disaster, but never mind), not by an act of the Corps of Engineers.
Shed an appropriate tear for their fate (and what it means for skyrocketing food prices and strained food supplies worldwide) but then remember: these folks knew they were setting up their farms and homes in a floodway; they were reminded of it every year in a letter from the Corps (as the Washington Post reports today); and for decades people such as Oliver Houck, a law professor at Tulane University, have been campaigning to prevent developers and farmers from making their profits in harm’s way in the middle of a floodway. While he was campaigning to stop the madness, he says, “a lot of places were developed because the USDA made subsidies to convert forest to cropland.”
What are we to make of — and do with — people who build and rebuild their beach houses, riverfront homes, floodplain farms, earthquake-fault chalets, and then when the inevitable disaster comes, as in the iconic TV footage from post-Katrina New Orleans, stand waist-deep in brown water and shout at the passing camera, “What are we es-posed to do?”
Or with the Corps of Engineers, which complains of the hard choices it must now make but does not admit that it built the choices. If, back when, we had decided not to go to war with the river but to work with it (its floods, after all, are what make the land so fertile that it is coveted by farmers), adapting our practices to its needs, we would not now have to be deciding who lives and who drowns, whose profits are protected and whose ruined.
Such is the world that industry makes, in which it is the acts of the Engineers that count, not the acts of God. And such a world is not sustainable.
[For updates on this and other stories, check out the Editor’s Log.]