Life along the Mississippi: Waiting and watching as the river rises
The US Army Corps of Engineers may open the Morganza Floodway to divert the surging Mississippi away from larger metropolitan areas. The clock is ticking for Stephensville, like most small towns located along backwater tributaries.
Here in this tiny hamlet crisscrossed by bayous and one-story ranch homes, neighbors gather on the corner to talk, children take a break to splash in the water, and an elderly couple watches from their porch swing.Skip to next paragraph
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The scene would be like any other lazy afternoon - but for the frantic sandbagging. It’s been going on for five days, ever since Stephenville, and other communities that trail below Baton Rouge into the Gulf of Mexico, learned that the US Army Corps of Engineers may open the Morganza Floodway to divert surging water from the Mississippi River away from larger metropolitan areas including New Orleans and stream it into the Atchafalaya Basin, which leads to the Gulf.
The decision to finally open the Morganza came late Friday afternoon. Corps officials said the opening is expected to prevent river water from rising no higher than 17 feet in New Orleans. Without the use of the Morganza, high water is expected to crest at 19.5 feet, just six inches from the top of the city’s levee and floodwall system.
The clock is ticking for Stephensville, like most small towns located along the backwater tributaries of the Morganza.
With the floodway’s opening late Saturday afternoon, high water is expected to arrive by Tuesday. The Corps says about 2,500 people located directly inside the floodway will be affected, but the greatest impact will be along the backwaters, where an additional 22,500 people have homes.
“There’s nothing you can do. You accept what you can do and go on from there,” says Betty Gros, who lives in nearby Amelia, La., in the brick ranch house she has shared with her husband, a commercial fisherman, for 43 years.
How high to pile sandbags?
Many here know that walls of two to six sandbags in height may do little against water that is expected to enter the floodway at 150,000 cubic feet per second, resulting in water levels that could crest between 10 to 16 feet downstream.
“What we’re doing here is for a minor flood. Anything greater will be in vain,” says Dale Metrejean, who is helping a friend fortify her home.
Still, the bagging goes on.
About 35 parish inmates, dressed in black-and-white jumpsuits, fill bags for people who are unable to do so themselves. Trucks line up for their allotment, while other locals – usually entire families, some groups of friends – sweat as they thrust their shovels into the sand. On average, it takes about a thousand sandbags to surround a home.
The sand is free but only if you can pick it up. If you are elderly or don’t have a vehicle, private operators will deliver a mound of sand to your front lawn for about $240 a load.
The local fire department is distributing empty sandbags at no charge. Tossed off a truck, bundles bounce off the ground like a heavy case of diapers.
Elsewhere, emergency personnel close roads so they can sandbag canals and protect infrastructure like power stations and water pumps.