Posted by: coastlinesproject | May 14, 2011


New Orleans;

The Ultimate Disaster vs. the 18 Billion Dollar Gamble

During the next few days the Army Corps of Engineers must make a Hobbesian choice between the ultimate disaster for New Orleans or an 18 Billion dollar bet that you can beat Mother Nature.

The Mississippi River is impressive. In New Orleans, it is straitjacketed between 20 foot high levees and the river itself is over 150 feet deep. When President Bush finally went down to New Orleans to address the situation after Katrina, he stood on Jefferson Square facing the river which flowed by 20 feet over his head. You could see the superstructure of supertankers and hear the quiet thrumming of their engines as they cruised by in front of him. If the ships could cruise over the nearby superdome they would hover in the air 10 feet above centerfield. It would have been an impressive photo-op if the levees decided to break during the presidential address.

New Orleansians consider the breaking of the river levees to be the ultimate disaster that could befall their city. The full force of the Mississippi would fill up the underwater bowl in which New Orleans lies with far more force and water than filled the city when Lake Pontchetrain burst it’s levees after Katrina. The last time that almost happened was in 1927 when New Orleans businessmen  convinced the federal government to dynamite the levees in nearby Plaquemines Parish. This drowned over 600 people and left 6,000 people homeless, though each were given $169 dollars for their losses. This incident helped led to the election of the dictatorial  Hughie Long was finally assassinated on the steps of the State house.

It is obvious the Army Corps of Engineers cannot let this  happen again. They have already opened the Bonnet Carre spillway, which is bleeding muddy Mississippi waters into lake Pontchetrain just north of the city. But the Corps also has an $18 billion dollar trick up its sleeve.

For thousands of year the Mississippi River has writhed back and forth like a water moccasin, spewing muddy sediment loads onto the coast. These have built a number major deltas along the southern loisiana coast. Now the river is about as far east as it can possibly go and it wants to writhe back west. In the 1950’s, however Congress passed a bill making it illegal for more than a  third of the Mississippi from ever flowing down the Atchafalaya River basin. This is akin to passing a bill to hold back the tide.

Today the equivalent of seven Niagara Falls tumbles down into the Atchafalaya, making this the second largest river in the country. A gunboat patrols the area in case some barge breaks loose and crashes into the earthen dam separating the two torrents which desperately want to embrace. During an earlier flood the dam almost broke sending engineers screaming into the night. The dam shook so severely that coal in a nearby railroad car ignited from the vibrations. After the flood, engineers discovered the river has scoured out a 100-foot deep hole in the water at the foot of the dam.

Since then, the Army Corps has made an $18 billion dollar bet that they can prevent this from happening again, The dice will be thrown in the next few days. In the face of the year’s unprecedented floods the Corps has decided to bleed half of the flow of the Mississippi down the Atchafalaya. In doing so they will intentionally flood 3 million acres of land in a swath that would almost reach from Boston to Washington. It would be like flooding the state of Connecticut under 5 to 25 feet of water. A dozen communities and two small cities will be inundated along with eleven major oil refineries. Citizens of the area have already been told to move to higher ground and the price of gasoline is already spiking at the pump in anticipation of the calamity.

If the Corps loses control of the situation, the entire flow of the Mississippi could come thundering down the Atchafalaya never to be diverted back. This would leave both New Orleans and Baton Rouge without their rivers. Billions of dollars in infrastructure would be lost and America’s petrochemical industry would be dealt a devastating blow. Eventually the Gulf of Mexico would  flow back up the empty Mississippi river basin toward New Orleans and Baton Rouge with unforeseen consequences.

Although it would be a devastating economic blow this would also be in the best long term ecological interests of the area, because the Mississippi sediments which now fall uselessly into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico would start to rebuild the marshes of Southern Louisiana which would be nature’s way of  protecting New Orleans from future hurricanes.

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Bill Sargent is a Nova consultant and author of over a dozen books about science and the environment. His latest book is “The Well From Hell; The BP spill and the Endurance of Big Oil.”  It is available at



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