When the levee breaks, no place to go.

Well, I got a flood of 580, maybe more, readers from www.iowntheworld.com — they very sweetly linked my post discussing them from their site. Very nice of them, indeed. Thanks. Still, we’re facing a flood of a different type here where I live. And if the levee breaks, we got no place to go.

So it’s Friday the 13th, too! Ooooh, let’s all be scared. Or scarred. Who can tell what triskadelaphobia lurks in the hearts of mankind? It’s an unlucky number I’m told. That big word is supposedly for the fear of it all. Some buildings, most famously the Empire State Building, have no “13th” floors. Right, there’s a big empty airspace right there in the middle of the thing. Too bad the plane hit it a wee bit higher up all those years ago. Maybe it could have flown right on through the empty space where there’s no 13th floor. At least that was a boo boo. Fortunately the plane was smaller and slower, though big and fast for its times, than other planes of late. And the Empire is rather more sturdy, what with a steel column every 20 feet or something, and a rock face. Me, I got triskedelaphilia, and I’m seeing a doctor about it right now. Actually, no; 35 friends are coming over for a party to help me through it all.

Funny about that rock, though, you can go somewhere in Indiana and see the quarry they got that rock from. The poor town had no more going for it, so they created themselves a tourist attraction and called it “The Empire State Hole in the Ground” or something, and it probably draws a few people in. Well, good for them. They got pluck. It’s a major part of life, pluck. I’ve never lacked for pluck. It was luck that was more problematic for me.

Meanwhile, we’re going to either get plucky and lucky or disaster will strike in the next week or so. For the Mississippi is rising, right up to the tippy top tops of the levees. Here in Baton Rouge it’s said there’s levees from 49.5 feet to 51 feet, and the river is coming down at 50 feet. Uh oh! So they’re sandbagging and water tubing (no, really, it’s big long tubes about a yard thick that they pump river water into and let it sit there snaking along on top of the levees. Hopefully they’ll hold.

Of course, every time this levee crisis hits I think of the Led Zeppelin hit “When the levee breaks…,” as the song says, “you ain’t got no place to go.” If it topped the levee downtown, it will fill a trough of land, of road actually, which they’re closing to traffic anyway – maybe the vibrations will do something, maybe it’s to make sure that no putz goes near the thing and does bad, I don’t know – between the bluff downtown sits on and the levee. The water is so high that even the casinos on riverboats are closing; and when gambling stops… Well, wonders never cease. They don’t want anyone making so much as a wave or wake as old man river rises up. It’s like a bathtub, slosh too much, it spills over.

Speaking of which, they (yes, the famous “they” – if it works we won’t hear of them, if it doesn’t they’ll be the public goats well known,) are opening up spillways to get water out of the river. Which is a neat trick, to take water out of a river and put it somewhere else. The Morganza – which is easy to pronounce, and the Bonnet Carre, which is a bit more problematic to say. The Morganza will allow some 3,000,000 acres to flood, and it’s a good thing we got so much empty, well, swamp filled land hanging around for just this very purpose. Well, some 2,500 “structures” – actually “camps” which in Louisiana is a weekend getaway home – might be going under, and 18,000 acres of farmland, but hey, we got to do something. Still, it’s always fun to see how high or low the water is when one crosses the Atchafalaya Swamp – which is another doozy of a Louisiana place name – but it’ll be almost up to the roadbed when their down with the controlled flooding.

Very controlled, indeed. For if the water comes too fast through the spillway it’ll rip the living daylights out of the place, for it’s all downhill from the river. And if it comes too fast it’ll take that 20 mile long bridge right out of where it’s been only since the 1970s. I hear it was last piece of the cross country interstates built, and that it was a bit tricky to build, for it’s just a big mud pile and no bedrock to put a piling on. Still, once you’re on it, you’re on it, there’s no getting off but at the others side. There’s actually a cool dozen such 20 mile long bridges you can’t get off of in this state.

The “bonnie carry” yah, that’s how you say that (not BonNET CarRAY like some dingbat said on the radio news I heard just yesterday while running errands,) is right there underneath Interstate 10, too. It protects New Orleans by sending all the river water to Lake Pontchartrain, which ain’t exactly deep, and is surrounded by levees too. And you can’t rush that flow either, or you might take out the twin spans of the 24 mile over the lake causeway. Once you’re on them, there’s no getting off either, till the other side of course. So it’s some tricky engineering their doing. Like I said, if it works, you won’t hear much about it. But if it doesn’t, well, then, that’s another issue.

For what happens when the levee breaks?

Oh, depends upon where. Some levees are more important than other levees. Some levees protect other levees. If the lesser levees break, well, that’s just a few thousands, or tens of thousands of acres of land under water, and anything there flooded of course, which will be homes and businesses and farmland and roads for sure. It won’t be pretty, no. Or the levee near some unused land could go, and well, that’s sort of OK, unless it keeps going clear out the other side to settled parts. It could take out a whole town if it breaks here or there within the lesser levee system and the spillway systems and the bayous. This places seems to have water management down to a science, we got to. But if the river levee itself breaks, well, then, that’s a different issue altogether.

If it breaks on the east side, then anything in the path of the water will be scooped up and put 100 miles somewhere else. You could almost imagine it ripping out a new river bed for itself. The Mississippi wouldn’t care, it just wants to get to the ocean quick. And right now it’s kept on a path some 180 miles from here to the mouth. But oh, there’s quicker routes it could take, if only we’d let it. It could tear some where southward, or actually, almost eastward, since the river makes a big turn at Baton Rouge to head southeast to New Orleans, where it takes another big turn or two before heading south to the mouth. But, well, say at somewhere in Ascension Parish – well, it’ll find Lake Maurepas (mahr-a-paw, weird, eh?) real quick, then Pontchartrain which comes up next, and then the Rigolets, and the lakes would be no more, for the river would sweep through them and dig a channel and spread out, and the spits of land that make up the Rigolets (rig-o-leeze, geez) will now be the mouth of the river. That’s a big problem.

If the river breaks through on the west side, well, that will make it easier for the Mississippi indeed, and it’ll just rip a new channel almost due south from whatever point it breaks through – and bam, you got yourselves a new river mouth. And that’s a big problem.

The nation might not be ready for such a thing. Oh, you think, what could be the trouble? Well, all the port facilities from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, 80 miles down one side of the river and 80 miles back up the other, are filled with all manner of refineries, chemical plants, granaries, coal transfer plants, and transhipment plants, and banana warehouses, and coffee roasters and pretty much ½ the port facilities in the nation will be left without a river to put boats in. ½ the commerce of the nation goes out and come in through the mouth of the river. It’s quite impressive to fly over, to see the ribbon of river through the marsh, and the enormous numbers of ships heading in or out. But if the mouth moves, well, then the old mouth will be mush pit, and all the navigational stuff will be pointless. And in the new mouth, there will be who knows what perils, including the remains of whatever towns and stuff were in the path of the new river bed. It’ll be ugly, real ugly.

New Orleans itself will be “down the bayou” as we say here, a little burg on a tiny creek. For the river will be no more there rushing past the French Quarter. And all the stuff that comes from Pittsburgh, to Minneapolis, to Missoula, to Denver and all in between that, oh 1800 mile wide swath of the Great Plains will be left without facilities to send their stuff to on barges to where it’s all loaded on ocean going ships. Oh, it’ll be a mess. I doubt there’s a plan. I doubt many people have thought much about it except to pray it doesn’t happen. And if the levee breaks in New Orleans itself? Kiss the city goodbye.

For when the levee breaks, indeed, we’ll have no place to go. We’ll know by June 1st whether things will continue as they are, or if we’re in a whole new ball game.



  1. Honey Badger DGAS

    Happy Birthday Jim 🙂

    I’ve got my fingers crossed for you that you manage to stay dry.

  2. ted

    What is fun about reading Jim’s writing is, that aside form sometimes a general disagreement on conclusion, or extending the analysis with some tidbit of information, I don’t see, I don’t EVER see any misinformation, lies, or distortions. Only the unvarnished truth.

    Geologically, we are way past due for a river course change. it was supposed to happen 100 years ago but we stopped it. The MR will go down through Acadiana, where it was 20 THOUSAND years ago. THere are four fossil deltas and one active delta, and the river changes about every 5000 years, after building up the mud, and natural subsidence elsewhere. The deltas extend from Mississippi to Texas. In five thousand more years the river will change again. Of course, since nothing ever changes on Earth (nothing new here or under the sun) the engineers will figure out what to do to to send the water back to New Orleans, and they won’t wait twenty millenia. The river is going to try to change, this landmark flood is one of the opportunities it has every few decades. The tipping point is near. (not that I think it is a good thing for Louisiana in terms of business and current habitation, but it is a natural thing.) If it happens and is irreversible (which would be for a short time only) we will see at the best a divided river, where some water is shunted through to Baton Rouge and New Orleans (which needs it for drinking – we have wells here in BR). Just some thoughts.

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