Officials in Louisiana continue preparations as the crest of flood water in the Mississippi River moves downstream, potentially threatening New Orleans and many oil and gas industry operations. Much may depend on a decision by the US Army Corps of Engineers, expected this weekend, to open a critical spillway.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said he believes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will open floodgates at the Morganza spillway, north of the state capital, Baton Rouge, this weekend and that people downstream should start moving out now.
"Based on the information we are getting from the US Army Corps of Engineers, we think it is extremely likely the spillway could be open as soon as Saturday, very likely it will be open no later than Sunday, so now is the time for our people to execute their plans," he said.
If the Corps does start opening the Morganza spillway, it will be a slow process that could take until the end of the month. Officials want to give people living downstream in the Achafalaya basin time to gather valuables and move out.
Corps of Engineers spokesperson Rachel Rodi explained the process. "The Morganza floodway has 125 floodgates that can open as needed to relieve the pressure. We are currently looking at doing a slow opening, that would mean we would only open a few gates at a time, day by day, and continue monitoring the flows and open more as needed," she said.
The idea of opening the floodgates would be to protect the more populated areas around Baton Rouge and New Orleans by diverting water from the swollen Mississippi. But opening the floodgates would spill water into thousands of hectares of farm land, forests and some residential areas.
Rodi says the Morganza spillway is just one of the tools available for controlling the overflow of water from the flooding Mississippi. "We are operating this whole thing as a system, the Mississippi river and tributary system. That is why we have the Bonne Carre spillway near New Orleans to relieve pressure in that area and we also have the Morganza spillway in this area. It is a floodway so there will be areas that will be impacted," she said.
The biggest impact from opening the Morganza floodgates could be felt at Morgan City, an oil and gas industry hub that sits near canals that open into the Gulf of Mexico. There may not be enough time to move heavy equipment and supplies to higher ground, but there is no word yet as to how much this might disrupt oil production in the Gulf.
The crest of water moving down the Mississippi river could also threaten several refineries that are located along the Mississippi in Louisiana. Flood waters could force the temporary shutdown of at least some of those refineries, which supply about 13 percent of the transportation fuel used in the United States. Exxon Mobil has already announced that it has shut off a few segments in its pipeline system in central Louisiana as a precaution until water levels subside.
President Barack Obama is expected to visit the flooding areas on Monday.