Louisiana's Cajun country braces for historic flooding

Residents in Louisiana's Cajun country are preparing for what's expected to be the worst flooding in more than 80 years as the Mississippi surges toward seven rural parishes along the Atchafalaya River Basin.

Lee Celano/Reuters
Deputy Troy LeBlanc of the St. Martin Parish Sheriff's office speaks with Kathy McMichael, as parish officials inform residents of a mandatory evacuation order beginning within days in Butte LaRose, Louisiana. The town, within the Atchafalaya Basin, is expected to flood up to several feet.

Battered by recent hurricanes and last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, residents of Louisiana’s Cajun country are now bracing for the biggest river flood the area has seen in over eighty years.

A week ago the US Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway north of Baton Rouge, sending torrents of flood water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River Basin.

Designed to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from severe flooding, the diversion into the Atchafalaya could bring 5 to 25 feet of water to seven rural parishes along the river basin, affecting more than 25,000 people.

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Parish officials have welcomed the news that the corps will likely open 25 percent of the Morganza’s capacity instead of the predicted 50 percent, a decision that could lower flood levels.

Though the river and surrounding bayous are topping their banks, floodwaters that were expected to have already inundated some communities along the Atchafalaya are moving slower than forecast.

“A combination of factors, including a longstanding drought in the area, and the Corps slowing releasing water into the Morganza, to give wildlife a chance to escape, has slowed the water down,” said Scott Lincoln, a hydrologist and forecaster for the National Weather Service.

The flood is now expected to crest at Butte LaRose at the midpoint of the river basin on May 27 at 24.5 feet, and at Morgan City near the Gulf on May 29 at 11 feet. The slower arrival of the flood has given officials and residents more time to prepare.

“We’ve been here for generations, family after family after family, and hurricanes and floods are something you learn to live with,” said Amanda Frederick, who lives in the community of Stephensville, just north of Morgan City in St. Martin Parish.

Sandwiched between two canals, the subdivision where she lives last flooded in 1993. In 2008, Hurricane Gustav tore shingles off her roof, demolished her backyard fence and shed, and broke windows with flying debris.

Six hundred sandbags

To prepare for the coming flood, this week Frederick hand-packed 600 nylons bags provided by the parish with sand and has built a three foot-tall mini levee ringing her house.

“We’re expecting about two feet of water in our yards here, so it could be a lot worse, but it’s still a lot of work to keep it out,” she said.

Up the Atchafalaya, residents of Butte LaRose faced a mandatory evacuation order Saturday morning, leaving the hamlet a ghost town. In the nearby town of Henderson, zydeco dance halls that would be packed on normal weekends stand empty.

“People are just waiting now for the water to come and be gone so they can start cleaning up,” said Henderson mayor Sherbin Collette. “They’re coming back no matter what – that’s the Cajun way.”

Residents may have a long wait, as flood waters are expected to take weeks to dissipate, but they will have help when the clean up starts.

This week, Gov. Bobby Jindal assured residents affected by the flood that private and federal flood insurance will cover damage. On Thursday, the Federal Emergency Management Administration said that local parishes will be reimbursed for 75 percent of costs for flood preparation. Some local officials, however, including Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet, said that the parishes should be fully reimbursed.

Houma, our largest city in Terrebonne, is not expected to be affected, but we have smaller communities outside the levee system that are very much threatened by this flood, which isn’t a natural event for us,” said Claudet, adding that more than 1,600 homes could be at risk.

In Terrebonne, the parish has distributed 300,000 sandbags to residents.

Outside Morgan City, a five hundred foot barge has been sunk in Bayou Chene to create a makeshift dam blocking backwater flooding in parts of Terrebonne and St. Mary parishes. A second barge will be sunk in nearby Bayou Black.

Parish workers, assisted by volunteers and prison inmates, have worked up to 18 hour days for the last week, installing tens of thousands of feet of water-filled dams, sandbag barricades, and sand filled Hesco baskets to protect homes, schools, and highways in low-lying areas.

Local school systems have made contingency plans if schools are forced to close, and to accommodate students who may not be able to travel due to high water.

Across the Atchafalaya River from Morgan City, the town of Berwick made ready for the flood on Friday afternoon.

At Berwick Elementary School, which stands a block inside the town’s 17-foot high flood wall, school secretary Penny Crappell watched students as they waited for rides at the end of the day.

'We’re expecting the biggest flood we’ve ever had'

“I’ve lived here all my life and we’re expecting the biggest flood we’ve ever had – six inches higher than 1973 – but if you’re inside the flood wall you should be okay,” said Crappell, who also sits on the town council.

“Our school is going to be okay, and my house is going to be okay, but our family business is going to be flooded,” she said, nodding toward the floodwall.

Down the street on the other side of the flood wall, Crappell’s Fish Market was already surrounded by six inches of water as the flood swollen Atchafalaya swept by yards away.

Crappell’s husband, Reid, is expecting several feet of water in the building and has already set up a portable market protected by the flood wall near the town’s boat landing.

“Last year the oil spill hurt us because people in other states didn’t want to buy Louisiana catfish, so things were just getting back to normal and now this happened,” he said. “This flood might put us out of the fishing business for the next two months, but it’ll be a bumper season now for crawfish, so we’re already looking ahead to that.”

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