For New Orleanians who don't see the Mississippi River every day, it's easy to forget that one of the great wonders of the world sits just beyond a knoll (sometimes it's a concrete wall) along the waterfront. That knoll and wall run from the Riverbend area where people fly kites and walk dogs, past the wharves and docks tourists never see, past the Aquarium of the Americas and Jax Brewery, down through the Marigny and Bywater and 9th Ward, and a round a curve down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the time we don't think about it, but that knoll and wall have never seemed smaller or more fragile than in the last two weeks.
The Mississippi is the fourth-largest river in the world. More than half the states in America have tributaries, rivulets, streams and rivers that feed it. In normal years, it swells as the northern snow pack melts. Then there are years such as 1927 — and 2011 — in which those who live along the Mississippi are reminded of the mighty river's awesome power.
In all the talk about the volume of water coming down the river, there hasn't been enough said about what goes up the river: iron and steel, coal and coffee, rubber and timber — and one of every nine gallons of gasoline Americans put in their cars. The Mississippi River throughout Louisiana is lined with grain elevators holding wheat, soy, milo, corn and rice bound for the rest of the country.
That's why it was disappointing to see some in the national media frame the recent opening of the Morganza Spillway as rural Louisianans being sacrificed "to save New Orleans." (Never mind that Baton Rouge, a larger city, would have been inundated first had the Morganza not opened.) An Associated Press report carried this exact narrative on May 19: "The Army Corps of Engineers, desperate to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans from flooding, opened a spigot on a spillway over the weekend, intentionally flooding this part of Cajun country."
Actually, the situation was more grave than that: The "spigot" was opened, in part, because of pressure on the levees — and the possibility of the river permanently changing course down the Atchafalaya Basin. The Corps already had opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway into Lake Pontchartrain and only opened the Morganza one bay at a time, as needed. It hadn't been opened since 1973, before many of the people living in the flood path were born. Since then, floodwalls have been built higher along the Atchafalaya, ring levees have been added, some people have moved to higher ground, and others have raised their houses. Lafourche Parish spokesman Brennan Matherne put it well when he told the Voice of America: "I think most people who have settled here understood that they were building in a flood plain. I mean, we deal with disasters, unfortunately, almost on an annual basis."
The sad truth is that flooding may have been inevitable even had the Morganza not opened. State Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain warned that its gates might have been damaged had they remained closed, resulting in uncontrollable flooding. Strain's point is that the inundation caused by Morganza's opening should be considered a natural disaster, allowing affected farmers to file claims for crop insurance. Gov. Bobby Jindal officially asked the White House for a Presidential Disaster Declaration, which would clear the way for the state to request individual and public assistance funds for those affected by flooding.
Anyone watching the misery inflicted upriver in Mississippi, Tennessee and Missouri knows what New Orleans and Baton Rouge potentially faced as the downspout of America reached record or near-record levels this year. Our little knoll and wall along the river may appear small, but it's all we've got — and it's more than many Louisianans have. For that, we should be grateful.
And we should be quick to aid those who are suffering. Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans & Acadiana is standing by to provide food, water and aid to Louisiana flood victims. To learn how you can help, go to Second Harvest's website: www.no-hunger.org.