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Mississippi floods threaten New Orleans

Mississippi Floodgate

U.S. army engineers have opened a key floodgate in an attempt to save New Orleans from the Mississippi River’s worst flood since 1927.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Mississippi floods threaten New Orleans” was written by Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, for Guardian Weekly on Sunday 15th May 2011 17.29 UTC

Residents in swampy areas of Louisiana’s Cajun country are waiting for the rising waters of the Mississippi to engulf their homes, after army engineers opened a key floodgate in an attempt to save New Orleans from the river’s worst flooding since 1927.

Units of the US Army Corps of Engineers opened up the first gate on a structure known as the Morganza spillway, sending about 10,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Atchafalaya river basin.

Water shot through the gates like a waterfall, hurling fish through the froth, witnesses said. The Associated Press reported that 100 acres were under a foot of water in the space of 30 minutes.

It was the first time the corps, which is in charge of managing the Mississippi flood controls, had to resort to the spillway since 1973.

Engineers were expected to open up at least two more gates on Sunday.

The operation was designed to divert water from the Mississippi, and reduce pressure on the levees protecting the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The planned diversion will send the water into the Atchafalaya Basin, and then onwards to the oil service town of Morgan City.

But it will drown about 3,000 square miles of low-lying, swampy land beneath up to 25 feet of water.

A number of small towns in what is known as Louisiana’s Cajun country will be destroyed, driving 25,000 people out of homes they have occupied for generations.

In towns such as Krotz Springs, one of the first areas on the flood path, authorities issued mandatory evacuation orders. “Everyone in the affected areas MUST BE OUT!” Don Menard, the president of St Landry parish said in his directive.

Residents of one small town, Butte La Rose, told reporters they had been advised to pack for the long haul.

“They told us to move as though we were moving – period – not coming back, not to so much as leave a toothpick behind,” said one woman.

In other small towns in the path of the flood waters, people loaded up truckloads with sand bags to fortify levees.

More of the 125 spillway’s gates will be opened in the coming days, with the gusher of water rising to 125,000 cubic feet per second, as the high waters of the Mississippi roll towards New Orleans.

The river is forecast to reach its peak at New Orleans on May 23, and then take up to 2 weeks to pour out into the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Major General Michael Walsh, the corps chief told reporters. “There is huge pressure on the system as we work the water through.”

The system of spillways, which was first planned after catastrophic flooding in the 1920s, was designed to save oil refineries and chemical plants around Baton Rouge, as well as the population hub of New Orleans.

But the decision to open the gates was a cruel choice, said Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans. “It doesn’t make us feel any good that [by] protecting New Orleans, other folks are going to get hurt,” he told reporters

But without the flood operations, New Orleans would face up to 20 feet of water pouring atop its levees, and floods far worse than Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Heavy snows in the mid-west, and record rain storms in April, have swollen the Mississippi to historic records. Engineers were forced earlier this month to act on two flood contingencies – blowing up a levee around the town of Cairo, Illinois, and opening up another Louisiana spillway.

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