As diverted water from the swollen Mississippi River flows through Louisiana's Morganza spillway and into the Achafalaya basin on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, thousands of people in the southern state are losing their homes, businesses and crops.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers opened the spillway recently to protect the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans from major flooding. People in the flood plain, however, are paying a high price.
As the flood waters pour into the woods, fields and small towns along the Achafalaya River, people and wildlife are pouring out of the region, seeking higher ground. Many towns closer to the source of the water, the Morganza spillway, are already evacuated. The spillway was partially opened by the U.S. Corps of Engineers to relieve the rush of flood water on the Mississippi River that could devastate the state capital of Baton Rouge and the historic port city of New Orleans farther downstream.
In La Fourche Parish, in southern Louisiana, local officials are counting on levees as high as one-and-a-half meters to hold back flood waters, but some rural areas and homes outside the system likely will be inundated.
Parish spokesman Brennan Matherne said people there are not happy about the coming flood, but that most of them accept the decision made by the Corps of Engineers to flood their region rather than the much more populated urban areas.
“I think there is definitely mixed feelings," said Matherne. "I think most people who have settled here understood that they were building in a flood plain. I mean, we deal with disasters, unfortunately, almost on an annual basis - whether it be hurricanes, flooding or oil spills such as what happened last summer.”
But Matherne says people in his parish are accepting of the situation because they will most likely escape the worst of the flooding. They understand the need to sacrifice for the greater good of protecting much of the state's economic assets and more populated cities. He says people in areas to the west, though, that are likely to have much higher water levels are not as forgiving.
“As you go westward from here to Morgan City, when you talk to people from that area, I think a lot of people are frustrated and do not understand why they have to flood to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge,” said Matherne.
Residents of other parts of the country sometimes wonder why anyone wants to live in the mostly swampy areas of southern Louisiana, where big storms and heavy rains are common, even when there are no hurricanes or floods to deal with.
Matherne said the Cajuns, who are of French descent and other people who have chosen to live here like the outdoor life of fishing and hunting, as well as the warmth and friendliness of their neighbors.
“People feel the benefits outweigh the risks," he said. "This is the type of area where these people love living in. Certainly, they are resilient. People will always come back to rebuild here and live here because they understand what it means to live in a close-knit community. We feel we have a unique place and culture here.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, already is at work in the area that likely will suffer the worst of the flooding. But people who have been displaced are facing the loss of homes and other possessions that cannot be replaced easily. This is something that longtime weather watcher William Hooke finds troubling.
Hooke, Director of the Policy Program at the American Meteorology Society in Washington, said, “You want to be very sensitive to the sacrifices of the people who have been displaced, the people who have been hurt and, I think, take an extra measure of reaching out to them, not just at the state level, because the state has been clobbered by the BP oil spill and by Katrina and everything else. "But the federal government needs to reach in and do a little better to maintain that social contract.”
Hooke said people living in flood plains should buy flood insurance and do what they can to prepare for disasters, even if years go by without one. He questions the idea of maintaining homes, businesses and infrastructure in low-lying areas that are likely to flood often.
“Early on, we had reasons for wanting to build right by the river. We didn't have cars; we didn't have railroads," he said. "So there were reasons for wanting to build in the flood plain, but no much any more. So the real strategy, if we could discipline ourselves to do this, is when buildings reach the end of their natural life in a flood plain area, we move out of the flood plain.”
Looking at this year's flood, which was caused by snow melt and heavy rains to the north, and the massive outbreak of tornadoes that devastated large areas of the southern United States recently, Hooke said these extremes are to be expected.
“People are saying this is the greatest flood since 1927; they are not saying this is the greatest flood ever. And those tornado outbreaks, we have had those before," he said. "The big one that people mention is the one in 1974. So the big signal in all of this is the natural variability on all kinds of time scales.”
But although Hooke said natural weather patterns have produced this year's extreme weather, he does not rule out some effect from global warming that might influence weather patterns.
“If climate is changing and there is global warming, and global warming is a reality, that has got to be accompanied somehow by changes in patterns of precipitation. The trouble is we don't know exactly how just yet.”
Hooke has studied weather for more than 30 years and offers his observations and musings on weather in an online blog called “Living on the Real World."