May 162011
 

Spectators look at the rising Mississippi River at the Audubon Riverside Park last Tuesday. (Sabree Hill, UptownMessenger.com)

The rising levels of Mississippi River are consuming conversations across the city.  This Sunday, curiously got the better of me and I woke up early and decided to walk over to the river levee.  The river was, and remains, disturbingly high.  At the Steamboat Natchez, the flood gauge read about 15.5 feet.  Where normally you would see several yards of rock on the banks, you could now only see about one yard, if that.

Some are saying that this is a 500-year flood event.  The Bonnet Carre Spillway and the Morganza Spillway have been opened simultaneously for the first time since 1973.  The Birds Point Floodway in Missouri had already been blasted open, the first time in history all three have been utilized.

The opening of the Morganza Spillway has caused media attention both here and abroad because it will result in the flooding of thousands of homes.  The London Telegraph told of “thousands of homes sacrificed to save New Orleans.”  ABC News headlined “Cajun Country Sacrificed to Save Cities.”  The Daily Mail bemoaned the “Human cost of saving big cities” at the expense of small towns.

In other words, the media has been presenting this event as a matter of the Atchafalaya Basin being flooded to save New Orleans.  This is a narrative we’ve all heard before – that others are unfairly made to sacrifice for flood-prone New Orleans.  We heard it time and time again after Hurricane Katrina from those naysayers who argued that we shouldn’t rebuild.

It’s also a narrative based on a falsity.  There is not, and never has been, a stark choice between saving New Orleans and sacrificing others.

Owen Courrèges

I’m not an engineer nor a policy expert on flood control.  However, I do know some basic facts.  First of all, the Morganza Floodgates were installed in 1954.  Accordingly, those living south of the floodgates have long known that they are living in a spillway.

Secondly, the Army Corps of Engineers announced prior to the opening of the Morganza that the rising waters were already predicted to overtop the floodgates.  As Governor Jindal noted, the Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that “the property would flood whether they open the spillway or not, so it’s a natural disaster.”

So why the stories of sacrifice for the sake of New Orleans?  Again, I tend to think it feeds the narrative established after Katrina, the notion that New Orleans is too disaster-prone and too demanding.  This narrative is repeated because it’s easily understood, even if it’s completely false.

The truth is that New Orleans is not uniquely prone to natural disasters.  Florida is struck by far more hurricanes.  California is prone to earthquakes and landslides.  “Tornado Alley” is prone to, well, tornadoes.  Nobody questions decisions to protect and rebuild these places, or implies that they have an unreasonable sense of entitlement when they ask for help.

It appears that New Orleans will most likely make it through the Mississippi River flooding virtually unscathed, but it will not be because of any sacrifice by rural Louisianans.  It will not be because New Orleanians are mouthy and ungrateful.  Rather, it will be because of a flood-control system constructed generations ago for the benefit of our entire country.  That’s not something New Orleans should be made to feel guilty about.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  • Thank you Owen! Also, opening the Morganza doesn’t just protect New Orleans. It should prevent flooding in Baton Rouge and it allows shipping to continue on the Mississippi. And no one mentions the grain elevators and refineries along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

  • California Cajun

    C’mon Owen. You know New Orleans is fulla a bunch of violent blacks, mouthy, low-class whites, and a few old-money families that all live in Baton Rouge now anyway. It’s the poor man’s Las Vegas, with worse streets and crappy golf courses. If a seething case of national resentment fed by the must-have-something-to-talk-about media can’t sink New Orleans, nothin’ can.

  • There’s a lot of truth in this, Owen. I think you’re exactly right about the narrative.

    When it comes to the homes that will flood in the Atchafalaya basin, though, there are many places that will be affected by water backing up tributary bayous and the like. I’m not a hydrologist by any stretch, but this is going to affect more than just those few who “built in the spillway,” just like flooding upriver went far beyond places protected by levees. That our national flood control plan “working” still means thousands of homes underwater is a truth I don’t think many Americans are ready to accept.

  • Suzanne Galjour

    Courreges is a beautiful name. “House of Courreges” rings a bell, too. Anyway, this is a good article. About time someone spoke up for the courageous souls who live, work, and worry in New Orleans. As stated, Florida has more killer hurricanes pounding it every year. Tell the retirees to move has never been a national topic. And as stated, tornadoes do tend to do more damage in Arkansas and Oklahoma than hurricanes. Earthquakes simply level houses, yet as stated no one has told Californians to move or blame them for earthquakes. Please leave New Orleans alone! Thanks Owen for your article.

  • justjim118

    You are oh so right, Owen. The media is consumed with spinning a simple event into something it is not. There was not meeting in a smoke-filled bank board room to determine that “For the good of the entire state, we must do everything possible to ensure that Baton Rouge and New Orleans do not flood. We, therefore, are going to build a floodway right now and open it.

    The Morganza has been there for years, and floodways and spillways are a necessary evil in light of the building of levees. The media doesn’t take into consideration the fact that the Mississippi was miles and miles wide in 1927.

    In light of the fact that very few people now live in southern Plaquemines, I think the government should pay the property owners fair market value for their property and blow up levees that protect a population that has, for the most part, moved to Belle Chasse. That would be a far more controversial item. However, it makes sense because we will start restoring our wetlands by letting the mother nature do her thing. Blowing up those levees seems to be a much simpler thing to do than keep creating costly but necessary diversion channels.

  • Gemma

    I heard this refrain over and over again after Katrina. “Why would anyone build a city there at the Mouth of the Mississippi?”

    New Orleans wasn’t the best place to build a city….it was the ONLY place to build a city—that would utilize the transportation potential of the Mighty Mississippi. It’s a Port City and guess what…Port Cities flood. Often. The more powerful the river, the greater the potential for disaster.

  • coday

    While I understand your point, “they knew it would flood eventually” is exactly what people said about New Orleans after Katrina. While true, that is no reason to lack sympathy or deemphasize their sacrifice! A lot of those people have lived in Atchafalaya for generations. True, this is all according to plan, but there are real people suffering, and they deserve exactly the same support that New Orleans desperately needed after Katrina, and, as benefactors, we should be the first to offer it rather than spending our time defending the decision.

  • coday

    P.S. I meant to say “beneficiaries” not “benefactors”

  • From the Associated Press this morning:
    “The Army Corps of Engineers, desperate to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans from flooding, opened a spigot on a spillway over the weekend, intentionally flooding this part of Cajun country, an area much less populated.”

    So at least they’re including Baton Rouge now. But how hard would it be to just tell the truth – that they opened the spillway to prevent the economic catastrophe of the Mississippi changing course?