Life along the Mississippi: Waiting and watching as the river rises

The US Army Corps of Engineers may open the Morganza Floodway to divert the surging Mississippi away from larger metropolitan areas. The clock is ticking for Stephensville, like most small towns located along backwater tributaries.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted May 14, 2011 at 1:56 pm EDT

Stephensville, La. – Here in this tiny hamlet crisscrossed by bayous and one-story ranch homes, neighbors gather on the corner to talk, children take a break to splash in the water, and an elderly couple watches from their porch swing.

The scene would be like any other lazy afternoon – but for the frantic sandbagging. It’s been going on for five days, ever since Stephenville, and other communities that trail below Baton Rouge into the Gulf of Mexico, learned that the US Army Corps of Engineers may open the Morganza Floodway to divert surging water from the Mississippi River away from larger metropolitan areas including New Orleans and stream it into the Atchafalaya Basin, which leads to the Gulf.

The decision to finally open the Morganza came late Friday afternoon. Corps officials said the opening is expected to prevent river water from rising no higher than 17 feet in New Orleans. Without the use of the Morganza, high water is expected to crest at 19.5 feet, just six inches from the top of the city’s levee and floodwall system.

The clock is ticking for Stephensville, like most small towns located along the backwater tributaries of the Morganza.

With the floodway’s opening late Saturday afternoon, high water is expected to arrive by Tuesday. The Corps says about 2,500 people located directly inside the floodway will be affected, but the greatest impact will be along the backwaters, where an additional 22,500 people have homes.

“There’s nothing you can do. You accept what you can do and go on from there,” says Betty Gros, who lives in nearby Amelia, La., in the brick ranch house she has shared with her husband, a commercial fisherman, for 43 years.

How high to pile sandbags?

Many here know that walls of two to six sandbags in height may do little against water that is expected to enter the floodway at 150,000 cubic feet per second, resulting in water levels that could crest between 10 to 16 feet downstream.

“What we’re doing here is for a minor flood. Anything greater will be in vain,” says Dale Metrejean, who is helping a friend fortify her home.

Still, the bagging goes on.

About 35 parish inmates, dressed in black-and-white jumpsuits, fill bags for people who are unable to do so themselves. Trucks line up for their allotment, while other locals – usually entire families, some groups of friends – sweat as they thrust their shovels into the sand. On average, it takes about a thousand sandbags to surround a home.

The sand is free but only if you can pick it up. If you are elderly or don’t have a vehicle, private operators will deliver a mound of sand to your front lawn for about $240 a load.

The local fire department is distributing empty sandbags at no charge. Tossed off a truck, bundles bounce off the ground like a heavy case of diapers.

Elsewhere, emergency personnel close roads so they can sandbag canals and protect infrastructure like power stations and water pumps.

This region has seen its fair share of flooding over the decades – “big time,” says Randy Chaisson, who grew up in the area. Which means that, to some, these last few days have been less about panicking and more about seeing just how much damage the area will incur compared to the last time.

“We’re going to get some of it but I don’t know how much,” says Mr. Chaisson, a retired carpenter who was surveying the activity on his bicycle.

Like any disaster in any part of the world, the elderly and poorest are the most vulnerable.

The view from the backyard of a housing project in Morgan City is of local police sandbagging a canal. As men shout above the grinding of Bobcats, a group of seniors quietly have their daily chat under a gazebo.

Flo Menard says she has no choice but to stay because she has nowhere to go. “I’m not even worried about it,” Ms. Menard says. She and her friends will go only “when it hits and they knock on our door.”

With bayous, canals and lakes in every direction, this is the same region still reeling from an economy upended by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and subsequent moratorium on deepwater oil drilling.

Most people live here because their way of life over generations is connected to water. It is common to see a boat, not a car, parked in a driveway and even a second on the front lawn. Crawfish traps stack up against backyard fences. The local convenience stores display photographs of proud faces holding up their winning catches – fish, turtle, or alligator.

While the area has changed in the recent past, with more immigrants from Vietnam and Mexico, many say the way of life has not. Which is why some, like Pat Fryou of Amelia, says she’s more worried about losing her newly planted flowerbeds, which she is asking her husband to make sure his sandbags protect.

‘A good place to live’

“It’s a good place. We know everybody on the bayou,” Ms. Fryou.

Still, there is evidence of strain.

Gregg Logan is driving out of town, moving valuables such as the family china and antique furniture to a public storage space he is renting in Morgan City that is already fortified by levees. His home, raised 10 feet above the flood plain, sits on four separate layers: concrete, fill dirt, river sand and a concrete slab. Plus, he has ample flood insurance and his home has never received water.

Still, he doesn’t want to take any chances. “It’s gonna get bad,” says Mr. Logan.

Others are leaving – and they don’t plan to return.

“All that sandbagging is not going to be enough,” says Bonnie Acosta. She has no flood insurance. The home she rents sticks out because it is the only one on the block that looks like it was a week ago. Her valuables are already moved out of the area, so all she and her husband have left to do is take a walk and view what happened to her block.

“I’m not coming back. Why? We’re going to have water in that house,” Ms. Acosta says, her voice trembling. Behind her sunglasses, she watches her neighbors dig and plant sandbags into knee-high walls. “It’s time.”

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