A steel, 10-ton floodgate was slowly raised Saturday for the first time in nearly four decades, unleashing a torrent of water from the Mississippi River, away from heavily populated areas downstream.
The water spit out slowly at first, then began gushing like a waterfall as it headed to swamp as much as 3,000 square miles of Cajun countryside known for small farms and fish camps. Some places could wind up under as much as 25 feet of water.
“We’re using every flood control tool we have in the system,” Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said Saturday from the dry side of the spillway, before the bay was opened. The podium Walsh was standing at was expected to be under several feet of water Sunday.
The Morganza spillway is part of a system of locks and levees built following the great flood of 1927 that killed hundreds. When it opened, it was the first time three flood-control systems have been unlocked at the same time along the Mississippi River.
As many as 25,000 people and 11,000 structures could be in harm’s way. Sheriffs and National Guardsmen warned people in a door-to-door sweep through the area throughout the end of the week, and area shelters said they were ready to accept up to 4,800 evacuees, Gov. Bobby Jindal said.
Some people living in the threatened stretch of countryside – an area known for small farms, fish camps and a drawling French dialect – have already started fleeing for higher ground.
“Now’s the time to evacuate,” Jindal said. “Now’s the time for our people to execute their plans. That water’s coming.”
By opening the floodgates on this spillway, the hope is to lessen pressure on the floodwalls down to the Gulf of Mexico and prevent a catastrophe. Officials say the move will ease pressure on levees protecting New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and oil refineries and chemical plants downstream.