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Letting Mississippi run its natural course could save New Orleans from hurricanes

The full diversion of the Mississippi River back down the Atchafalaya basin would flood millions of acres, permanently submerge entire communities, destroy oil refineries and farms, and leave the port of New Orleans without its river. But it could also save Louisiana from the next hurricane.

By William Sargent / May 19, 2011

Ipswich, Mass.

During the next few days the Army Corps of Engineers must continue making their Hobbesian choice between the ultimate disaster for New Orleans and an $18 billion bet that they can beat Mother Nature. To keep flood waters from breaking the levees and charging into the city, the Corps is making an $18 billion gamble that they can divert a fourth of the Mississippi’s flow down the Atchafalaya River without losing control of the situation.

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The choice may seem obvious, but the Corps’ gamble also holds potentially devastating consequences for New Orleans. If it loses control of the diversion, the entire flow of the Mississippi could suddenly come thundering down the Atchafalaya – the course nature wants it to follow – never to be diverted back. Farms, towns, and oil refineries would be drowned, and the key port cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge would be left without their river.

As the Corps begins the partial diversion of the Mississippi down the Atchafalaya, coastal scientists should seize on the opportunity to consider longer-term shifts in the river’s course. It’s possible that this crisis could lead to a less costly and more sustainable way of dealing with the problems of coastal Louisiana.

Although such a shift in the river’s path would deal a devastating economic blow to the region, allowing the Mississippi to flow west down the Atchafalaya would ultimately be in the best long-term ecological interest of the area because it would build up the southern Louisiana coast as a buffer against future hurricanes.

New Orleans: a city under a river

The Mississippi River is impressive. In New Orleans, it is straitjacketed between 20-foot high levees, and the river itself is over 150 feet deep. When President Bush finally went down to New Orleans to address the situation after hurricane Katrina, he stood on Jackson Square, facing the river that flowed by, 20 feet over his head.

You could see the superstructure of supertankers and hear the quiet thrumming of their engines as they cruised by in front of him. If the ships could have cruised over the nearby superdome they would have hovered in the air 10 feet above centerfield. It would have been an impressive photo-op, indeed, if the levees had decided to break during the presidential address.


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