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Army Corps to flood south La.

Opening the Morganza spillway will release the pressure from the swollen Mississippi River.

New York Times

MORGAN CITY, La. - To relieve the pressure brought by a Mississippi River that has swollen to epic proportions, the Army Corps of Engineers will open the Morganza spillway, a gated structure north of Baton Rouge, to protect New Orleans and other downriver areas by flooding a swath of southern Louisiana.

The order came Friday from the president of the Mississippi River Commission, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, and directed the New Orleans district commander, Col. Ed Fleming, "to be prepared to operate the Morganza Floodway within 24 hours."

Though just about everyone in southern Louisiana expected this decision and had resigned themselves to the trade-off behind it, the official word ended days of uncertainty.

By design, the giant gated structure at Morganza is triggered to open, at least partly, when the Mississippi River reaches a flow rate of 1.5 million cubic feet per second at the Red River Landing, north of Baton Rouge.

On Friday morning, the corps said, the flow rate at that spot was 1.45 million cubic feet per second and rising. The spillway has been opened only once before, in 1973.

The corps will conduct a "slow opening" of the spillway, and once released the water will take days to pour out into the Atchafalaya River basin, filling up marshes, engorging bayous, submerging hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, and seeping into thousands of homes. It will also test the network of levees that wall off communities throughout the basin. The water levels in the area will remain high for weeks.

According to maps released by the corps, these areas would be flooded to some degree whether the spillway were opened or not, given the extraordinary amount of water in the system.

There are about 2,500 people in the direct path of the spillway, and about 22,500 others who would be threatened by swollen backwaters. Gov. Bobby Jindal urged people remaining in these areas to begin evacuating.

"While we understand the reasoning behind it, it's still hard to accept," said Charlene Guidry, 57, who lives on the river in the town of Butte La Rose.

"It's a no-brainer when you look at sacrificing our small community to save New Orleans and Baton Rogue. I'm not angry. I've resigned myself. I just hope the government steps up to the plate in a way they didn't after Katrina."