The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has opened a key spillway, allowing the swollen Mississippi River to flood thousands of homes and crops. The action is expected to result in huge losses, inundating nearly 8,000 square kilometers of low-lying swamp and cropland. But the deliberate flooding could reduce the potential for even greater damage to larger population centers downstream.
Seventy-two kilometers north of Louisiana's capital, experts say this plume of gushing water from the Morganza Spillway will gradually raise water levels up to six meters high -- flooding farms and businesses in an area that until Saturday was home to more than 25,000 people.
Colonel Ed Fleming of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called the action historic. "Not only is it historic for the state of Louisiana and the town of Morganza, but it's a historic day for our nation. Today's the first day in the history of our nation that we have had three major floodways open," he said.
Fed by heavy spring rains and winter snow melt, the swollen Mississippi River has already flooded hundreds of homes and businesses. It's destroyed thousands of hectares of valuable corn and soy crops and now threatens to inundate towns, farms and refineries between Memphis and the Gulf of Mexico. Early estimates peg damages at more than a billion dollars.
Had the floodgates remained closed, Army engineers say the damage to larger cities farther south would have been even more catastrophic. Resigned residents say the state had little choice.
"They are saying 30- to 60,000 people will probably get flooded, but the alternative to that is possibly losing Baton Rouge and New Orleans. And you're talking about well over a million people and billions and billions of dollars of industry, and we are going to lose some crops here and some people will lose some work time, but you have got to look at the big picture, I guess," said Jerry Berger, a Louisiana resident.
But the big picture is little comfort to those who stand to lose their homes, especially those without flood insurance.
"Unfortunately, no we don't have flood insurance. That was an oversight on our part. Normally we do, but nothing happened last year so we opted not to. (We had) some financial problems and now we might pay for it," said homeowner George Morrison.
Experts say Americans can expect to pay higher insurance premiums as a result of this year's flooding. The U.S. already has reported about $5 billion in weather related damage this year -- a pace, the National Climactic Data Center says, could exceed the previous record of $9 billion in 2008.