Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Living near the floodwaters in New Orleans

Mississippi River just a fact of life for batture dwellers in New Orleans area

Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2011, 9:30 PM
John Pope, The Times-Picayune 
Life along the Mississippi River batture: Call it resignation. Call it fatalism. Call it acceptance.
Even though the river may reach its highest level in nearly 75 years, forcing the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard to talk of contingency plans to keep New Orleans from drowning, people like Marcy Schramm and Scott Campbell, who live on the "wet" side of the massive levee just west of the Orleans-Jefferson line, are vigilant but not hysterical.
"Everyone who lives on the batture knows we live on the river and in the river, so this is what we signed up for," said Schramm, executive director of the French Quarter Festival.
"We're concerned, like everyone else that's either outside or inside the levee system," said Campbell, Pelican Publishing Co.'s Mid-South sales manager. "We're watching it closely, but we're not panicking."
The couple are taking precautions, as are agencies such as the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad and the Audubon Nature Institute, which operates Audubon Zoo. The Audubon Institute owns a wide swath of green space beyond the levee, and the Aquarium of the Americas, on the river near Canal Street.
If calamity strikes, "we have an ongoing emergency response program at all our localities," Audubon spokeswoman Sarah Burnette said.
"The way it looks now, we're going to be OK once they open up Morganza," she said, referring to the spillway upriver from Baton Rouge that appears likely to be opened.
map-batture-051211.jpgView full size
On the batture, Schramm and Campbell have parked their pickup truck as close to the levee as they can get without violating the ban on parking there, and they're moving some household items into a storage container to keep them from getting drenched.
The couple bought their house, part of a small strip of homes on the river side of the levee, in 2003. They moved in last year after some work that included raising the building five feet higher than Jefferson Parish recommended.
"Those camps have been up there for about 100 years," Schramm said. "It's a hardy bunch of people and property up there."
Hardy or not, the batture residents are getting ready. One man, who declined to be identified, was helping his neighbor haul debris from under his house that, with a strong wave, could undermine the piers. When the river is at normal levels, a fence running behind the homes protects them from logs and other floating debris that could damage pilings, but the top of the fence is barely visible above the rising water.
As the two men worked, a goat roamed in a fenced enclosure.
"Are we worried? No," the man said. "Everybody out here can handle it. Everybody's prepared."
The Public Belt, which operates 25 miles of track that snakes along the river and through the Port of New Orleans, is poised to move all cars, locomotives and other equipment inside existing floodwalls "at a moment's notice," General Manager John Morrow said.
Sewerage & Water Board officials have asked the Coast Guard to make sure ships and barges steer clear of water-intake pumps in the river near the Jefferson Parish line now that rising water has submerged barriers designed to keep traffic away, spokesman Robert Jackson said.
The same goes for sewer-outflow infrastructure near the St. Bernard Parish line, he said.
The steamboat Natchez continues to ply the river, and passengers keep boarding, said Adrienne Thomas, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Steamboat Co.
In addition to watching for floating debris, the principal adjustment that the Natchez crew has had to make as the river rises is to change the pitch of the gangway so people can continue to board on the middle level, she said.
Because the Natchez isn't a speedboat, it hasn't stirred up wakes that could weaken levees or pilings, Thomas said.
That's a major concern of batture dwellers, Schramm said.
"They're like intolerant drivers that push wakes into houses," she said. "But last night when I got home from work, a big ship came by. I went out to the deck, and I didn't see any waves."
Moreover, Schramm said, the house didn't shudder.
"It's a great place to live," Campbell said. "We love it. It's unique. Even with the high water, we wouldn't change it."
Said Macon Fry, another batture resident: "People who live there are used to water. Nobody moves up there unless they understand the way the river works. Just like you don't move to the desert unless you expect it to be dry.
"No worries. It is what it is."
Staff writer Michelle Krupa contributed to this article. John Pope can be reached at or 504.826.3317.
Mississippi River flooding update with reporter Mark SchleifsteinTimes-Picayune environment reporter Mark Schleifstein explains the 'worst case scenario' map that the Army Corps of Engineers has issued showing what will happen if the Morganza floodway is not opened

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