PATTERSON — Prepare for high water similar to the Flood of 1973 and follow local officials’ instructions.
That was the advice of Col. Edward “Ed” Fleming, commander of the New Orleans District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to government officials, landowners, state officials and residents gathered Thursday evening for a public hearing at the Patterson Area Civic Center.
“If you remember the water that came in ’98, that water that’s coming is worse than that, and if you remember what came in 2008, it’s worse than that, too,” Fleming told leaders from St. Mary, Assumption, Iberville as well as state and national representatives gathered Thursday. “So if you remember what came in ’73, that’s probably about what you’re going to see.”
Fleming, whose district announced Thursday that it will open the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Norco beginning Monday, said that a decision on whether to open the Morganza Spillway would come either today or Saturday.
The colonel said volume of water flow down the Mississippi River determines whether spillways are open, not stages at individual areas.
At Baton Rouge, the Mississippi River levees can handle up to 1.5 million cubic feet per second, while they can handle up to 1.25 million cfs at New Orleans.
The opening of the Bonnet Carre is meant to relieve pressure on the New Orleans levees by diverting water to the Gulf of Mexico via Lake Pontchartrain.
Fleming said the Bonnet Carre Spillway takes up to 250,000 cubic feet per second.
Once it reaches its maximum flow and the Mississippi River’s flow at the Red River landing reaches 1.5 million cfs, the Corps may begin opening bays in the Morganza Spillway, he said. On Thursday, it was at 1.06 million cfs.
If Morganza is opened, Fleming said a few bays would be open at a time because officials want to see how it would react, to prevent scouring and to allow wildlife to move to higher ground.
As for what an opening of Morganza would do for Morgan City, Fleming said he was unsure how that would affect area flood stages. As of now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is projecting a 9.5 foot crest in Morgan City on May 23. The flood stage in Morgan City as of this morning was 5.7 feet and projected to continue to rise to 7.1 feet by Tuesday, according to NOAA.
“We’re working the numbers right now to see that,” Fleming said of Morganza’s effect on the area. “Look, as you guys know it’s not an easy math calculation or an engineering calculation to figure out. What the Corps of Engineers has done across the nation has helped us down here. We have dams and reservoirs on the Ohio River …. then along the Missouri River. Those dams are slowing up (water flow) and that’s good for us.”
He said equipment already has been prepositioned at the Berwick and Bayou Boeuf Locks to help with the possible flood fight.
Even if the spillway is not open, Fleming said as the floodwaters rise, the water will infiltrate the floodgate because there is an open space between the La. 1 bridge that crosses the spillway and the floodgate below.
“Based on the National Weather Service predictions at this point, there’s going to be a lot of water coming down that spillway even if we don’t operate that Morganza structure,” he said.
That 9.5 foot prediction, locally, though, does not factor in potential rain.
According to the NWS, 2 inches of rain are predicted in the middle Mississippi Valley through Tuesday and none in the area during the same timeframe.
“That’s a lot less than what we’ve been seeing,” NWS service hydrologist Jonathan Brazzell said. “That should not affect what we have coming down right now.”
No strong southerly winds, which can push water into the area, are forecast for the Stephensville area, either, Brazzell said.
However, during the next 30 days, the NWS forecast calls for above normal rainfall.
“It’s kind of odd,” Brazzell said. “We’re in a bad drought even though” the area is projected to flood.
In the meantime, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jonathan Burton, who oversees operations at the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Morgan City, said the Coast Guard would be patrolling area waters to ensure vessels are properly secured and to ensure oil and other hazardous materials are secured.
“The last thing we want is something to come loose and land on top of one of these levees or poking a hole in one of these businesses because there’s water now where there used to be land,” Burton said.
He also requested that those who see others riding all-terrain vehicles or using the levees for purposes other than their intended purpose, to report them to local authorities or tell them to get off.
“This is where you as citizens can help us out,” he said. “If you see some yahoo driving up and down on the levees on … four-wheelers, get them the hell off of there,” he said, adding that this can weaken the levees. “That’s a critical issue for us.”
He also said the local Coast Guard would be controlling traffic more closely as river stages rise.
“Depending on what’s shut down, we’ll obviously have to facilitate traffic,” he said. “We understand wake’s an issue. We’ll do what we can there.”
St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier also announced that sandbags would be available, beginning today from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day — except this Sunday — until further notice (see separate story).
“If it means us going 24 hours a day, we will,” Cormier said of sandbagging operations.
Also, local leaders are making plans to sink multiple barges in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (east of McDermott) to stop backwater flooding from threatening areas in Amelia and Morgan City as well as Stephensville in Lower St. Martin Parish. By sinking these barges in the GIWW, it still would allow commerce to access local waterways via Bayou Chene (see separate story).
As for Morgan City, Mayor Tim Matte said the city has identified 10,500 feet of levees that they have requested flood protection baskets from the state as well as manpower to fill these. Areas identified include La. 70, the entire Auburn Subdivision levee, Justa Street levee and low lying areas between homes on Lake Palourde Drive. He said the city is taking on as much sand as possible.
Matte said he has been granted manpower, likely National Guard troops, to help fill these baskets.
“We’re ready to go to work,” Matte said of whenever the state approves the requests.
In Berwick, Mayor Louis Ratcliff said the city would close the remaining flood gates after the Pacific and First Street floodgates, which are being closed today, if water levels reach between 7.5 and 8 feet.
“At that point, all of Front Street will be closed,” Ratcliff said. “We’re prepared. I think we’re ready for it.”