Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bike ride atop the levee reveals dangers

Mississippi River's flood a battle for all on the river's edge

Published: Saturday, May 14, 2011, 5:35 PM     Updated: Sunday, May 15, 2011, 1:34 PM
James O'Byrne, 
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities - ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons, and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
-- T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages
The flooding Mississippi River is done watching and waiting. And anyone who doubts that the river has become T.S. Eliot's personification of "a strong brown god" need only walk up the slope of the levee and peer over the top.
If, like me, you frequent the levee path that runs along the Mississippi, you have developed a more personal relationship with the river than almost everyone else who lives on the dry side, in the levee's inert, protective shadow.
Bicycling or walking along any part of the 25-mile paved path that runs uninterrupted from Audubon Park in New Orleans to Norco in St. Charles Parish, you get to know the river as a highly changeable organism; as a bit of batture wilderness amid urban and suburban sprawl; and as a bustling, pulsating center of commerce.
For weeks now, on bicycle rides along the New Orleans and Jefferson Parish stretches of the path, we in the community of river watchers have witnessed the river rise and rise, and keep on rising, until the water towers over the homes on the other side of the levee.
On Monday, I bicycled the full 25-mile path, taking photographs along the way, to get a sense of how the creatures, both human and animal, are coping with the worst Mississippi River flood since 1927.
My ride ended at the Bonnet Carre spillway, which was commissioned after the 1927 disaster, along with the Morganza Floodway north of Baton Rouge, in anticipation of just such an event as we are witnessing now. The painstaking process of opening the spillway's 350 bays was underway, and river water was coursing its way to Lake Pontchartrain.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already determined  that the massive diversion of river water at Bonnet Carre is not enough to prevent big problems in New Orleans. On Saturday, the Morganza was opened for only the second time in its history. That means others farther north will lose their homes and businesses in the flood, so that New Orleans and Baton Rouge can be saved. Such is the cruel calculus of the river's raging rise.
Living on the river
It's just after dawn when my ride begins, and soon I reach the Orleans-Jefferson line near Riverbend, where there remains a small community of homes on the Mississippi River batture, that narrow strip of land that sits between the base of the levee and the water's edge, mostly forested and usually dry, except in the springtime when the high water comes.
It's a foggy morning on the river, as usual at this time of year. Even when there's no fog elsewhere, the river fogs over, as the warm humid air of late spring contacts the much cooler river, chilled by the recently melted snow and cold northern rains rolling to the Gulf of Mexico. On the river, the tankers' tall superstructures poke out of the low fog banks, moving back and forth like skyscrapers floating on a cloud.
At the Riverbend, the water is lapping at the floorboards of some of the batture homes. A man wades in three feet of water in his yard to tie his propane tank to the trees, so that it doesn't float away. I ask him, literally in passing, if this is the highest he has seen the water. "Nope, '73 was higher," he recalls of the flood that sparked the first and only opening of Morganza. "But I know more water is coming."
Riding along the Mississippi River's great flood of 2011A resident of the batture in New Orleans ties his propane tank to trees in his yard to keep it from floating away in the flood.
More water is indeed coming. The river crested at Memphis on Tuesday at nearly 48 feet. That bulging torrent of water is heading our way.
A hard time for business
Unknown to many who stay on the dry side of the levee, the river batture is alive with commerce. There are stevedoring companies and boat maintenance yards. There are huge bluffs of river sand that rise as high as the levee. Dump trucks roll over the levees, darting in and out of these sand pits, taking loads to far-off construction sites. Companies specializing in rocks and gravel and other aggregates that move up and down the river stack their products in giant mounds on the high parts of the batture.
All of these companies are engaged in a battle with water. Here, the road is flooded, and a mini-dozer tries to push enough gravel onto the crown to make it passable. There, untended trucks and tractors sit in increasingly dangerous pools of water. Workmen stand in two feet of water, working on a tugboat, its status "in dry dock" increasingly tenuous in the rising river. A couple of more feet, and they'll have to tie it down.
At the Petroleum Helicopters terminal on the batture in Jefferson Parish, near the Huey P.  Long Bridge, several of the landing pads are already under water. The helicopters that I'm used to seeing on my daily rides have been moved to safety.
And at the massive construction site at the Huey Long, a vast area that was bustling just a few weeks ago with cranes, supplies, equipment and workers, is now a pond stretching to the river's edge.
Flotsam and jetsam
Along the river bank near Ochsner, a huge swath of trees has been cleared from the batture, creating an unparalleled panorama where you can see the full breadth of the river  and the wide turn that gives the Riverbend area its name. Outside of the city, such stretches are rare, as usually the forest on the batture is so thick that it blocks out a clear view of the river.
Riding along the Mississippi River's great flood of 2011Downriver from curves in the Mississippi, huge jams of driftwood and debris dotted with brightly colored plastic bottles form in the flooded batture space. When the water recedes, this debris will be left behind.
It's a favored spot for the workers at Ochnser Hospital to sit in the grass and eat their lunches and watch the ships and barges roll by. The batture was cleared out over the winter, when the river was low in its banks, so that the Corps could lay out sprawling mats, big as a football field, made up of concrete slabs hinged together like a quilt. These articulated mats were rolled across the underwater part of the riverbank to stabilize the bank, particularly where there's lots of pressure, such as where the river takes a sharp bend. A similar mat was installed at Algiers Point over the winter.
As I watch the river's flow, I am relieved at the unseen armor. Because right now, the Mississippi River, far from looking like the Old Man celebrated in song, seems rather young and impetuous, its surface roiling and surging southward with uncharacteristic swiftness.
At each bend in the river, debris floating along in the flood keeps going straight, and ends up stacked in huge floating fields pressed against the concrete armor that lines the river side of the levees. Woven into the tapestry of driftwood are old tires, wooden spools, strange blobs of orange Styrofoam, rusted metal orbs that must have been buoys, the occasional stray toilet seat and, seemingly everywhere, little pockmarks of bright color, the ubiquitous plastic bottles. When the water goes down, these piles of debris will remain.
A concrete bird habitat
The Mississippi River batture is a bird sanctuary that stretches the length of the continent. In southeast Louisiana, it harbors herons, cranes, egrets, ducks, owls – you name it. If it's native to Louisiana, it's here. As I ride farther into Jefferson Parish, where life on the dry side turns from industrial to residential, the birds become ubiquitous.
Riding along the Mississippi River's great flood of 2011The flood has chased all manner of wildlife from the protective cover of the batture forest. Birds live on the water's edge. When that edge becomes the concrete slope of the levee, that's where you will find them still.
Many of these birds live their lives at the water's edge. And now that edge is a swath of sloped concrete. Squeezed in by the river on one side, and the assortment of intermittent bicyclers, joggers and walkers who amble by, these huge communities of birds stand warily and incongruously on the concrete levee, waiting for the water to recede so they can retreat to the forest once again.
I am not an experienced bird watcher. I recognize egrets, but can't say what kind. I see ducks of many varieties. I watch an owl digging away at a tuft of grass growing between the concrete before sensing me and fleeing to the safety of the batture forest. I curse the flood. But I feel fortunate on this day that the water has narrowed the distance between me and the creatures that make the river home.
At the spillway
The scene at the Bonnet Carre feels more like going to a New Orleans Saints preseason practice than witnessing the commencement of a deadly serious effort to tame the wild river. People have lined the levee along the spillway with lawn chairs. They have brought the family, baby strollers and all. They have coolers and snacks and binoculars.
But they are not making light of the situation. It's clear from listening to their conversations that they know they have a front row seat to history. It has, after all, been 84 years since the Mississippi River has flexed its muscles in this way. And the last time it happened, none of these structures – the mighty, armored levees, the Morganza Floodway, the Bonnet Carre Spillway – existed.
People who live in Southeast Louisiana seem to have an innate sense that, no matter how mighty are man's accomplishments, no matter how confident are the "worshippers of the machine" that T.S. Eliot speaks of, this battle between man and nature is often a 50-50 proposition. And after what we've been through, we know better than almost anyone else: sometimes you end up on the wrong end of that equation. 
Riding along the Mississippi River's great flood of 2011Each bay of the Bonnet Carre Spillway has 20 pins that are removed one by one by the cranes.
As I watch the Corps workers begin the painstaking, week-long task of pulling the wood and metal pins from each spillway bay – 20 pins per bay, 350 bays, 7,000 pins in all – I know that the war analogy is apt. Each day, across the country, men and women are battling the river, on levees, in boardrooms, at sand bag centers, in homes and businesses, and in front of computers that spit out data about flow rates and river stages and crest models.
I remember a story I wrote early in my career, in 1986, when the Corps opened a new Auxiliary Control Structure at the critical Old River complex, where engineers grudgingly feed 30 percent of the Mississippi River's flow into the Atchafalaya River, to keep the whole shooting match from heading down the shorter, easier route to the sea. The auxiliary structure was authorized after the mighty 1973 flood, which almost destroyed the Old River structure, an event that would have unleashed an unprecedented human and economic disaster.
And so it goes through the years. The river floods. Engineers devise an answer. The river makes a mockery of the new machines. Humans build better machines in hopes of triumphing. Until the next, greater flood. It is a loser's game.  
As I watch the water surge through the Bonnet Carre, I think about the floodway 160 miles upriver, and about the people who will have water in their homes because the Morganza is opened. I have had water in my home, and I don't wish that heartbreak on anyone. But I know that it is inevitable.
In The Times-Picayune earlier this week, a woman in Morgan City contemplated losing her home, so that Baton Rouge and New Orleans might stay dry. "Y'all pray for us," she asked.
It seems the least we can do.

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