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Dominion of Nature, The
300 MILESUp the Mississippi from its mouth - many parishes above New Orleans and well north of Baton Rouge - a shipping lock on the right bank of the Mississippi allows ships to exit the river. In apparent defiance of nature, they descend to thirty-three feet and then retreat west or south. This is testament, to say the least, to a rare relationship between a river and the surrounding terrain – any river, anywhere, let alone the third river in the world. Adjacent terrain is Cajun country, geographically the high point of the French-Acadian world, forming a triangle in southern Louisiana, the base of which is the Gulf Coast, from the mouth of the Mississippi to almost Texas, and the two sides converge upward. . here on the lock - and neither New Orleans nor Baton Rouge. Residents of the local parishes (Pointe Coupee Parish, Avoyelles Parish) would describe this as the pinnacle of Cajun country in every way - none more emphatic than the lockmaster, whose face once spread a look of amazement as he watched, just as I got my bag I removed a red scarf on my head.
"You're a raccoon in that red scarf," he said.
Since a coonass is a Cajun, I gave him an appreciative smile. I told him I always carry a scarf in my purse no matter where I am - New York like Maine or Louisiana, let alone New Jersey (my home) - and sometimes the color is blue. He said: "Blue is the mark of a Yankee. The lockmaster wore a white helmet over his lined, deeply tanned face, his body full but not overloaded. The badge on his desk said RABALAIS.
The navigation lock is not a formal location. When I first met Rabalais six months ago, he was sitting with his staff at 10am eating homemade bread, macaroni and cheese and a pile of rice hidden under what he called “smoked aged chicken gravy”. He said, "Get a plate of that." When I went to the old hen quite violently, Rabalais said to the others, "He's a pure raccoon. I knew that."
If I were a pure Coonass, I'd want to know what Rabalais did - Norris F. Rabalais, born and raised on a farm near Simmesport, in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana. When Rabalais was a child, there was no shipping lock to sink Mississippi ships. Water simply gushed from the boats and continued to flow into a waterscape known as Atchafalaya. In every decade since about 1860, the Atchafalaya River has drawn more water from the Mississippi than it had in the previous decade. In the late 1940s, when Rabalais was a teenager, the volume approached one-third. As the Atchafalaya widened and deepened, eroding headlong and presenting the Mississippi with an increasingly attractive alternative, it was poised for nothing less than absolute conquest: In short order it would take over the entire Mississippi and become the main river itself. Rabalais said: "They always taught us in high school that one day there would be structures here to control the flow of this water, but I never thought I'd be on one. Someone back in the day - the dead and gone - introduced me to this. We had a few very smart teachers.
The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so had it remained in a canal. If so, southern Louisiana would be one long, narrow peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists as it does now because the Mississippi rose here and there in an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand - changing course frequently and radically, spilling over the left bank or the right bank to explode. in entirely new directions. The aim of the river is always to reach the gulf by the shortest and steepest drop. As the estuary moves south and the river lengthens, the gradient decreases, flow decreases, and sediment builds up on the bed. Eventually it builds up so much that the river rushes sideways. Major changes of this sort tended to occur once every millennium. The Mississippi's main waterway three thousand years ago is now the calm waters of Bayou Teche, which mimic the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the tops of ancient natural dykes, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier - arched rows of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the canal was withdrawn from the east. It abruptly changed and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the 2nd century AD it was reconquered and brought south by the now modest Bayou Lafourche, which lost its hegemony over what is now the course of the river in the year 1000, through the region that would come to be known as Plaquemines. By the 1950s, Mississippi had encroached so far beyond New Orleans on the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its descendant Atchafalaya was about to take it. The Atchafalaya route covered 145 miles across the delta plain - much less than half of the main river route.
For Mississippi, such a change was perfectly natural, but since the last change, Europeans have settled along the river, a nation has developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya conquest of Mississippi would include the sinking of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans, among others. Without its fresh water, its muddy port, its economy divorced from domestic commerce, New Orleans would become New Gomorrah. Furthermore, there were so many big industries between the two cities that it made the river glow like a worm at night. Because of settlement patterns, this stretch of the Mississippi was long known as "the German coast" and now, with B.F. Goodrich, E.I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina - with a concentration of infrastructure like few other places - has often been called "the Ruhrgebiet." The industry was there because of the river. They came for its ease of navigation and fresh water. They did not want and could not stand in a tidal creek. It was simply unthinkable that nature would take its course. World War Six would inflict less damage on southern Louisiana. Nature had become the enemy of the state in this place.
Rabalais works for the US Army Corps of Engineers. A few years ago, the Corps made a film showing the shipping lock and complex of associated structures built to prevent the capture of the Mississippi. The narrator said: “This nation has a great and mighty adversary. Our adversary can cause the United States to lose almost all of its maritime trade, losing its position as the first trading nation... We are fighting Mother Nature... . It is a battle we must fight day after day, year after year; the health of our economy depends on victory.”
Rabalais was there from the beginning, working as a building inspector. Here, at the location of the shipping lock, the battle had begun. An old winding curve of the Mississippi was the channel through which the water had escaped into the Atchafalaya. To make matters worse, the old winding curve also served as the mouth of the Red River. Coming northwest from Texas via Shreveport, the Red River was a tributary of the Mississippi for a few thousand years - until the 1940s, when the Atchafalaya conquered it and pushed it away. The Red conquest increased the Atchafalaya's power as they crushed the lands along the Mississippi. On the map, these winding waterways looked like the letter "H". The Mississippi was the right bank. The Atchafalaya and the captured Red were the left side. The crossing, just 11 kilometers long, was what used to be the meander curve, which the community had long called Rio Velho. At times, enough water flowed from the Mississippi and across the Old River to quintuple Niagara Falls. At Old River, the United States would lose its status among the world's trading nations. At Old River, New Orleans would be lost, Baton Rouge would be lost. At Old River we would miss the American Ruhr. The Army's name for its operation was Old River Control.
Rabalais pointed across the lock to two calm lakes separated by a trapezoidal earthen causeway a hundred feet high. It weighed five million tons and had stopped Old River. He had split Old River in two. The cut ends lay there, full of weeds. Where Atchafalaya had closed in Mississippi, bigmouth bass were now calling the shots. The navigation lock was dug next to this monument. Like the lock, the great dam was built on the Mississippi's main dyke. In the Rabalais pickup we went up the dam and also wandered through the land of the Rio Velho. On that day, he said, the water on the Mississippi side was 15 feet above sea level, while the water on the Atchafalaya side was 5 feet above sea level. Cattle and white horses with white foals grazed the deep green grass on the slopes of the dams. Beyond the dikes, the fields were flat and reached to distant rows of trees. Very early in the morning, a dense fog covered the fields. The sun was just above the horizon, big and red in the mist, rising slowly like a hot air balloon. It was a landscape of corn and soybeans, corn-fed catfish farms, feed stores and Kingdom Halls in crossroads towns. There were small, neat cemeteries with rows of white sarcophagi raised a foot or two above the ground, despite the protection of the dikes. There were shacks with tar paper on concrete posts and low brick houses under planted pines. pickup trucks under the pines. If this was a battlefield of sorts, it was no different than many battlefields - landscapes so peaceful that they belie their history. However, most battlefields are places where something happened. Here it would happen indefinitely.
We went to Mississippi. Still indistinct in the fog, it looked like a piece of sea. Rabalais said, "That's a big booger." During the spring flood years of 1927, 1937, 1973, over two million cubic feet of water passed through this location every second. Sixty-five kilotons per second. At the mouth of the tributary leading to the lock were stone bridges, articulated concrete infill and other heavy defenses. Rabalais found that this particular point was no more vulnerable than almost any other point on that stretch of river which passed so close to the Atchafalaya plain. There were countless places it could erupt: "It has a tendency to erupt anywhere you can call it."
Why then didn't the Mississippi overflow and be diverted to the Atchafalaya long ago?
"Because they are watching closely," said Rabalais. "It will be closely monitored."
AFTER THE BODYSince the Old River was dammed in 1963, the engineers couldn't walk away like carpenters fixing a leak. They had thought about this in the early planning stages, but there were certain implications they couldn't ignore. After all, the Atchafalaya was a tributary of the Mississippi - the main river and, coincidentally, the only river of note that the Corps had not yet connected. In times of massive floods, the Atchafalaya was useful as a safety valve to relieve a lot of pressure and prevent New Orleans from landing in the Yucatán. The Atchafalaya was also the source of water in the swamps and bays of the Cajun world. It was the water supply of small towns and numerous localities. Its upper reaches were surrounded by farmland. The Corps was neither politically nor morally capable of killing the Atchafalaya. I had to feed him water. The more the Atchafalaya received, the more it wanted to receive, because it was the steepest stream. The more he received, the deeper his bed became. The difference in altitude between Atchafalaya and Mississippi would continue to widen, increasing catch conditions. The Corps would have to deal with that. The Corps would need to build something that could give the Atchafalaya part of Mississippi, preventing them from taking all of it. In effect, the Corps would have to build Fort Laramie: a place where the natives could buy flour and firearms, but where the gates could be closed if they attacked.
Ten miles upriver from the shipping lock, where the collected sediments were believed to be most solid, they dug out a patch of dry ground and constructed what for a time looked like an inadequate, waterless bridge. It was five hundred and sixty feet long, parallel to the Mississippi and about a thousand feet from the water. Between its pillars were ten pillars framing eleven gates that could be raised or lowered, opened or closed like windows. To and through this structure soon came a new Old River - a hollowed out channel that ran from the Mississippi inward and seven miles out to the Red Atchafalaya. The Corps had no intention of accommodating nature. Its engineers intended to control it in space and lock it in time. In 1950, shortly before the start of the project, the Atchafalaya received 30% of the water flowing into the Old River from the north. This water was known as the Latitude River, and it was little in the red, a lot in the Mississippi. The United States Congress in its deliberations decided that "the flow and sediment distribution in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers is now in desirable proportions and should be maintained". The Corps was thus ordered to receive 1950. In the Old River, thirty percent of the latitude flow would flow into the Atchafalaya in the long run.
The device, which resembled a ten-pillar bridge, was technically a sleeper or weir, and was commissioned in 1963 in an orchestrated series of events that blossomed into the art of civil engineering. The old Rio Velho was closed. The new Rio Velho was inaugurated. When the water crossed the sill of the Mississippi plain into the Atchafalaya, it tore the Corps' lair from lip to basin into white shreds in the deafening turbulence of a great new waterfall. More or less simultaneously, the navigation lock opened its chamber. Now everything had changed and nothing had changed. Boats can still fall out of the river. The proportion of water remained as before - this for the American Ruhr area, this for the Cajun swamp ecosystems. There was a change of command when the army replaced the wild.
Over time, people came to believe that these companies contained a certain amount of pride. A law professor at Tulane University, for example, would rank him third in the annals of arrogance. His name was Oliver Houck. "The greatest arrogance was stealing the sun," he said. “The second greatest arrogance is running rivers backwards. The third biggest arrogance is trying to keep Mississippi in place. The river's ancient channels reach almost all the way to Texas. People tried to limit the flow to a run - that's where the arrogance began." the land where one river was preparing to capture another, even bolder to build there a structure designed to control what could happen.
Some people went further than Houck and said they thought the structure was going to fail. In 1980, for example, a study published by the Louisiana State University Water Resources Research Institute described Old River as "the scene of a direct confrontation between the United States government and Mississippi" and all of the Corps' buildings. to Mississippi. "Exactly when this will happen cannot be predicted," the report concluded. "It could happen next year, over the next decade, or sometime in the next thirty or forty years. But the end result is just a matter of time and it's wise to prepare for it."
The Corps thought otherwise, saying, "We can't let that happen. We've been ordered by Congress not to let that happen." Its promotional film referred to Old River Control as "a good soldier". Old River Control was also "the culmination of the comprehensive flood control project for the lower Mississippi Valley", and nothing would remove the culmination. People living in the New Orleans District Headquarters, US Army Corps of Engineers, arrived, were confronted at the door with a collage of maps and photos and bold lettering that stated in no uncertain terms: "Old river control structures , located about two hundred miles above New Orleans on the Mississippi River, avoid this." the Mississippi changes course controlling flows diverted into the Atchafalaya Basin.
No one's opinion was based on more intimate knowledge than that of LeRoy Dugas, the upstream counterpart of the Rabalais—the manager of the apparatus that controlled the flow of the Rio Velho. Like Rabalais, he was Akkadian and from the countryside. Dugie - as he is commonly known - had worked at Old River Control since 1963 when the water first started flowing. In the years that followed, colonels and generals sought his advice. “These L.S.U. saying whatever we do, we're going to lose the system," he remarked one day at Old River, and after a pause he added, "Maybe they're right." His voice had the sound of water on rocks. It had a lower pitch. than a helicon tuba. Best heard inside, in his operations office, away from the competing thunder of the structure. "Maybe they're right," he repeated. "We believe we can hold the flow. We'll try. Whenever you try to control nature, you have a blow against yourself.”
Dugie's face, weather-beaten and deeply tanned, didn't look tired from the alertness and humor in his eyes. He wore a large belt buckle inscribed TO HELP CONTROL THE MISSISSIPPI. "I was originally born in Morganza," he told me. “Belt miles down the road. I have lived in Pointe Coupee Parish all my life. (Rabalais too—as he puts it—“once left out of here,” but not for long.) During Dugie's adolescence, of course, the Mississippi spilled over to feed the Atchafalaya. He took the water's vagaries for granted, much less the superiority of its power at high tide. He was a gunner on the Liberty ships in the South Pacific during World War II, and a year or two after his return he was surprised to learn that the Corps of Engineers planned to dam the Old River. "They wanted to try to control the flow," he said. "I thought they lost their marbles."
From the outside, on the road that crisscrossed the five hundred and sixty-six foot structure, it was easy to see where the marbles could have gone. Even in this humble moment of normal flow, we look down on a raging water. It was running at about twelve miles per hour - significantly faster than the post-collapse Yukon - and it was hitting the so-called calming pool on the downstream side, the quietest place you'll ever see. The Grand Canyon's #10 rapids, which are fatally navigable, are similar to the Old River's backwater basin, but the Canyon's rapids are one-fifth the width. The Susitna River sometimes looks more like melting glacial ice from the Alaska Range. Huge truckloads of logs continued from the north to cross the structure, on their way to a woodchip factory in Simmesport. You could barely hear them as they passed.
Beside this was a high sill - a separate weir two-thirds of a mile long and two feet above the local water level, the purpose of which was to regulate the flow of extremely high water. The low ledge, as the one we were on used to be called, was the main valve for the Old River and handled the water every day. The fate of the project depended on the low threshold, and that's what people meant when, as they used to, they simply said "the framework." The frame and high sill - like the downstream navigation lock - were designed on the Mississippi mainline dyke. Aside from the sound of water, the vast plains around these structures were still and truly still. Pump monkeys bobbed here and there in the fields in search of oil. On the Batture River, the muddy no man's land between the waterline and the dike, individual herons sat in the trees and waited for the next cow.
Dugie commented that he would retire soon, that he felt old and exhausted from fighting the river.
I told him, "All you need is a good tide."
And he said, "Oh, no. Don't talk like that, man. You're talking vulgar."
It was strange to look out over the Mississippi Mainstream, less than a mile away, and see its contents spilling over the side like cornmeal spilling out of a hole in a burlap sack. Dugie said that so much water coming out of the Mississippi created a strong and misleading suction, something like a vacuum that could suck in boats of all sizes. He'd seen some big ones on the structure. In the mid-1960s, a man came alone from Wisconsin in a small double-headed, double-headed craft - a craft known to the Algonquians, who called it Mississippi. Dugie called this boat "a pirogue". Whatever it was, the man had rowed all the way from Wisconsin to New Orleans. However, when he almost conquered Mississippi, he was captured by Atchafalaya. Old River caught him, dragged him out of the Mississippi, and hurled him through the building. "He was in shock but he survived," Dugie said. "We took him to the hospital in Natchez."
After a moment I said, "This is an exciting place."
And Dugie said, "Did you hear from Murphy... 'What can happen, will happen'? This is where Murphy lives.
A TRAILERWhen the Atchafalaya arrives, it can go from Corpus Christi to Vicksburg with a cargo of gas, or from Houston to St. Louis. Paul with ethylene glycol. Occasionally, Rabalais spots a sailing vessel, more rarely a canoe. Once, a poplar shelter with a tall Viking arch passed by the Old River. A ship carrying Leif Eriksson himself, however, would attract less attention from the lockmaster than a certain cream-colored ship with red rims called the Mississippi with Major General Thomas Sands on board.
Every year, in late summer or early fall, the Mississippi descends its namesake river and empties into the lock. This is the low water inspection trip on which the General makes a trip from St. Louis to Atchafalaya, stopping at riverside towns along the way, receiving visitors and listening to complaints. Externally, Mississippi is a standard tug - two hundred and seventeen feet long, fifteen feet wide, her horsepower approaching four thousand. The term "tugboat" is a misnomer as all river tugs push their mounted barges and are therefore designed with wide, flat bows. Their ugly profiles look precarious, as if they were two aft halves of the ship. Mississippi triumphs over these disadvantages. Intended to be a vehicle for impressionable people, it makes up in luxury what it lacks in form. Only its red trim is martial. Your overall luminous cream suggests elevated blood cells. Its wide, flat facade is a wall of picture windows overlooking the river with cream-colored sofas set between coffee tables and floor lamps. A river tug can push up to fifty barges at a time. What drives this boat is the body's program.
The Mississippi River plays host to shipboard audiences at Cape Girardeau, Memphis, Vicksburg, and finally Morgan City on its fall voyage. Usually arrives in Old River early in the morning. Before the boat passes through the lock, people with names like Broussard, Brignac, Begnaud, Blanchard, Juneau, Gautreau, Caillouet, and Smith pick up people from the Atchafalaya Basin Levee Board, East Jefferson Levee Board, Pontchartrain Levee Board, Louisiana Office of Public Works, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Teche-Vermilion Freshwater District. Enter Oliver Houck, the Tulane teacher, and nine people - seven civilians and two colonels - from the New Orleans District Corps of Engineers. "It's the best form of communication," says General Sands enthusiastically as he greets his colleagues and guests. The gates close behind Mississippi. The tie-down bitts in the lock howl like coyotes as the water and the boat sink.
Mississippi's wheelhouse is a large beautiful room just above the lounge and has a similar front with a wall of windows. It has chart tables, consoles with electronic equipment and redundant radars. The pilots sit front and center, as lean as the pilots in the air - John Dugger of Collierville, Tennessee (the ship's home port is Memphis), and Jorge Cano, a local "contact pilot" who is here to help regular pilots feeling the shallows. from Atchafalaya. His work is complicated under the river's changing profiles. Mark Twain wrote of river pilots: “Two things seemed pretty obvious to me. One was that a man had to learn more to be a pilot than anyone should know; and the other was that he had to relearn every twenty-four hours in a different way... . Its true pilot cares for nothing on earth but the river, and his pride in his profession exceeds the pride of kings. For his part, Cano is a little less flattering about Twain. He says he is baffled that Twain "has such a reputation for someone who has spent so little time on the river." Today, the waters of Atchafalaya are four meters lower than those of the Mississippi. Cano says the difference is usually up to twenty. Now the gates open slowly, revealing the drainage channel that leads to the old Rio Velho and then to Atchafalaya.
The Mississippi River Commission, part civilian, part military, with General Sands as chairman, is required by law to make these trips to inspect flood control and navigation systems from Illinois to the Gulf and conduct hearings. Thus, there are two major generals and a brigadier on board, several colonels, several majors - in short, a military concentration that is really atypical for the USA. Army Corps of Engineers is. The corps is essentially civilian, with a handful of military personnel at the top and near it. For example, Sands has his assistant chief executive, head of engineering, head of planning, head of operations, and head of programming with him. All these bosses are civilians. Sands is the commander of the Lower Mississippi Valley Division, which includes the New Orleans District, which includes Old River. District of New Orleans, US Army Corps of Engineers, consisting of approximately ten Army officers and fourteen hundred civilians.
Why the Army should be concerned about seawall systems, navigation locks, rock jetties, concrete linings, and the harsh realities of delta geomorphology is a question with no obvious answer. The Body is here because it is here. Its presence is not an expression of a contemporary military strategy, but of pure evolutionary tradition, having its origins around a century and a quarter. The Corps are here specifically to protect the nation from a repeat of the War of 1812. As this unusual year entered its thirty-sixth month, the British Army landed on the Gulf Coast and marched on New Orleans. The war had been encouraged, not to say provoked, by territorially aggressive American Midwesterners known across the country as the Hawks. It has produced some refreshing American moments so far ("We've met the enemy and he's ours"), including significant naval victories at the hands of ships like Hornet and Wasp. In general, however, the triumphs were British. The British repulsed several attacks on Canada. They had established a base in Maine. In Washington they burned the Capitol and the White House and were trying to destroy Baltimore with their destructive missiles and air blast ballistics. New Orleans was not unaware of these events and the much-feared invasion. When it arrived, American snipers with no military training, after things like bales of cotton, killed two thousand of the king's soldiers while losing seventy-one of their own. Even so, fears of invasion of the city persisted long after the war.
Despite the Treaty of Ghent, there was a widespread assumption that the British would attack again, and if so, they would certainly attack where they had attacked before. You didn't have to go to war college to learn that lightning had a second chance. Fortifications were therefore necessary in the New Orleans area. That this was an order for the Army Corps of Engineers was evident not only in military terms. There was - and would be for another decade - only one engineering school in America. That was the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The academy was founded in 1802. The beginnings of the Army Corps of Engineers date back to the American Revolution. General Washington, finding few engineers worthy of the word among his restless colonists, hired Louis XVI engineers, and the 1st Corps was mainly French.
Army engineers selected half a dozen sites near New Orleans and used a pattern to hire a civilian contractor to build the fortifications. Congress also instructed the Army to survey the Mississippi and its tributaries to secure and improve inland navigation. Thus, the corps spread north from its military fortifications to the works along the rivers. During the 1840s and 1950s, many of these projects were developed under the supervision of Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, West Point '38, a native of the parish of St. Bernard and the district's senior military engineer. In late 1860, Beauregard was appointed superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served five days, resigned to become a Confederate general, and opened the Civil War by directing the bombardment of Fort Sumter.
So much so that there are military officers on the Mississippi tug inspecting the Louisiana Delta Plain flood controls. Thomas Sands - with his two stars, warm smile, intuitive sense of people and knowledge of hydrology - is the apostolic successor of Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. Sands is lean, athletic, and young-looking. Only in his Vietnam tapes does he show the impact of his missions as a combat engineer. One of his thumbs is larger and less straight than the other, but this is nothing more than an orthopedic reference to the rigors of mob lacrosse West Point '58. Raised near Nashville, he holds an advanced degree in hydrology from Texas A.&M. and a law degree earned overnight while working at the Pentagon. As a colonel, he led the New Orleans District for three years. As a brigadier general, he was commander of the corps' North Atlantic Division, covering military and civilian work from Maine to Virginia. Now he is responsible for the Mississippi Valley, from Missouri to the Gulf, from his headquarters in Vicksburg. A green slate plaque hangs on a wall in his private office. One day when I interviewed him there, he spent most of his time making and erasing graphs with chalk. »Man against nature. That's what life is about,” he said, describing the chained forces at Old River and the controls the Corps had employed. He used only the middle third of the slate. The rest was foreseen. The words "BE INNOVATIVE, RESPONSIBLE AND OPERATE WITH A TOUCH OF CLASS" are written in chalk at the bottom. "Old River is a true representation of a confrontation with nature," he continued. “People realized that Mother Nature, which had changed course many times, would do it again. Today, Mother Nature operates in a restricted environment in the lower Mississippi. Old River is the key element. Each aspect of the law below relates to what is happening in this remote little place that most people have never heard of. The top third of the frame was marked with the words "DO WHAT IS RIGHT AND BE PREPARED TO FIGHT AS INFANTRY IF NECESSARY!!!"
Now, aboard the Mississippi tug, the general says: “In terms of hydrology, we have stopped time here at Old River. In fact, we stop time in relation to the distribution of currents. Man directs the ripening process of Atchafalaya and the lower Mississippi." fantail, people wander where they please, stopping here and there for small group chats.
Two seaplanes appear above the trees, descend, climb and land side by side behind the Mississippi. The towing boat reduces power and the planes roll in its wake. They carry four passengers from the Morgan City stragglers to the floating assembly. They enter and the planes fly away. These four who strive to advance their particular interests are four of the two million nine hundred thousand people whose livelihoods, safety, health and quality of life are directly affected by the Corps' controls at Old River. In previous years, when there were no control structures, of course, there were no complaints. The water ran where it wanted. People took it as it came. The delta was in a natural state. But now that Old River has valves and gauges, there are two million nine hundred thousand potential claimants, few of whom hesitate to file a complaint with the Fire Department. For example, if farmers want less water, fishermen want more, and everyone complains with their bodies. In the words of General Sands: “We generally wear black hats all the time. There is no place in the United States where there are so many conflicting interests over a water resource.”
Aboard the Mississippi this is the main theme. "What the Body does with the water decides everything," says Oliver Houck, professor of ecoprudence. And General Sands gleefully notes that every time he makes one of these trips, he "gets a smack on the head and shoulders." He continues: “You can see both sides of most water stories. There's so much more here. The crayfish fisherman and the shrimp fisherman arrive in five minutes and ask about opposite things. Crayfish fishermen say: 'Add more water, the water is low'. Shrimp fishermen don't want more water. You benefit from low water. Those interested in navigation say, "The water is too low, don't take any more or you'll have to dredge." Community interests say, "Keep the water high or it will increase saltwater intrusion." In the flood season, everyone is interested in less water: when the water starts to recede, farmers upstream say, 'Get the water off us faster'. But the people downstream don't want it any faster. When the water level rises, we divert some fresh water into the swamps because the swamps need it for nutrients and sedimentation, but the oystercatchers complain. Everyone complains, except those who have oyster farms that are being destroyed by excess salinity. The range of competing influences is phenomenal.”
In southern Louisiana, the Mississippi riverbed is so far below sea level that it takes a flow of at least 120,000 cubic feet per second to hold the salt water and keep it under New Orleans, which is drinking the river. Along the rugged edges of the Gulf, entire ecosystems depend on the ratio of freshwater to saltwater, which is largely controlled by the Corps. Shrimp fishermen want brackish water, waterfowl want fresh water - a situation that has the National Marine Fisheries fighting the United States Fish and Wildlife while both simultaneously attack the Corps. Industrial interests in the American Ruhr area plead with the Corps to keep the fresh water supply running. Agricultural pumping stations demand more fresh water for the rice, but nervously ask the Fire Department to save the sediment. Morgan City needs water to get oil boats and barges to offshore oil rigs, but when Morgan City gets too much water, that's the end of Morgan City. Port authorities represent special needs, and grain elevator owners and coal elevator owners, ship interests, flood control districts, dike plates. As General Sands says at the end of the list, "Any guy who wants to install a new dock should come to us." People suspect that the Corps prefers other people. In addition to all the things the Body actually does and doesn't do, there are infinitely many things it imagines doing, infinitely many things it imagines not doing, and infinitely many things it imagines not doing that it can do because the Body has been given the omnipotent role of God. .
The tug enters the Atchafalaya in an undefined T into a jungle of phreatophyte trees. Atchafalaya. The "a's" are wide, the word rhymes with "jambalaya", and the accents are on the second and fourth syllables. Of the navigable rivers, the Atchafalaya is widely described as one of the most treacherous in the world, but it's just calm and peaceful. He stands there like a great crocodile in a low swamp, time on his side, and waits - waiting to catch up with the Corps of Engineers - and crouches lower and lower in his bed, presenting the Mississippi into which the river flows, a kind of abyss can fall. As I stand in the wheelhouse behind Jorge Cano and John Dugger as they steer the ship to port and south, I am reminded of a conversation between Cano and Rabalais a few days ago when Cano speculated about the Atchafalaya's chances of making the Mississippi River. conquer one day despite all efforts to avoid it. "Mother Nature is patient," he said. "Mother Nature has more time than we do."
Rabalais said, "She has nothing but time."
Frederic Chatry is also in the pilothouse, as is Fred Bayley. Both are civilians: Chatry, Chief Engineer of the New Orleans District; Bayley, chief engineer of the Lower Mississippi Valley Division. Chatry is short and slender, a courteous and formal man, his uniform is a bow tie. He says that before the control structures were built, water flowed in both directions across the Rio Velho. It would flow into Mississippi when red is at its highest. This was called a reversal, and the last reversal occurred in 1945. The Atchafalaya rise was so strong in its pull at this point that it took all the red and held it. “The more water Atchafalaya absorbs, the bigger it gets; the bigger it gets, the more water it absorbs. The only thing stopping it is Old River Control. If we had not stopped it, the main river would now be the Atchafalaya, below this point. If left to its own devices, the end result would be that it would become main stream. If that happened, below the Old River, the Mississippi range would be unstable. Mud would fill it up. Corps couldn't handle it. Old River to Baton Rouge would fill up. Northern river traffic would cease. On Delta, everything would go in the pot. We couldn't handle it. It would be clogged. 🇧🇷
I ask to what extent they consider the structures in Old River to fail.
Bayley responds quickly: Fred Bayley, a handsome, sandy-haired man in a military tie and a cool brown suit, with the attentive demeanor of an academic and none of the defenses of a challenged engineer. "Anything can fail," he says. “In most of our projects, we try to train the natural effects instead of facing them head on. I never approach anything thinking it can't go wrong. That's burying your head in the sand.”
We make twelve knots on a two and a half knot chain in bright sunshine and fluffy clouds flying between the Atchafalaya dykes and between the river storm trees. We head down the trail above Simmesport, but only a distant bridge bears witness to this. You cannot see land from the river. You cannot see the river from the land. I once observed this land from the air in a light aircraft, and although it's called a flood channel - that stretch of it, the West Atchafalaya Floodway - it's full of agriculture, in plowed geometries of brown, green and brown. The Atchafalaya from above looks like Connecticut meandering through New Hampshire's flood farms. If you look up, you won't see Mount Washington. From time to time you can see man-made ponds stretching to the horizon - rectangular ponds dotted with crab cages. You see dark green pastures, picket fences, cows with short, thick shadows.
The unexpected happens - unthinkable, regrettable, but not unimaginable. First with a modest tug, then with a more pronounced tug, and then with a deep structural shudder, the Mississippi is captured by the Atchafalaya. The Central American flagship of the US Army Corps of Engineers ran aground.
AFTER GOING ONLINEIn 1963, Old River's control structures had to wait ten years to prove what they could do. The 1950s and 1960s were safe in the Mississippi Valley. In human terms, a generation has passed without catastrophic flooding. The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project—the entire Corps defensive repertoire south of Cairo, Illinois—seemed to have fulfilled its design purpose: to contain and direct the river's course to guide it safely into the Gulf. The corps saw this feat with understandable pride and, without deliberately disregarding respect for the enemy, issued a declaration of victory: "We arrested, straightened, regulated, tied."
Then, in the fall of 1972, into the winter of 1973, flow levels were above normal, reducing the system's tolerance for what might happen in the spring. It snowed extraordinarily heavily in the upper valley. An exceptional rainy season has arrived in the south. During the dull era that was coming to an end, the Mississippi main channel, in its relative inertia, had shed a lot of sediment accumulation. So high water would flow much higher. As the spring runoff moved down the tributaries, pooling and closing in, the computers warned that the mainline dykes were insufficient to contain it. Eight hundred miles of frantically filled sandbags were added to the dikes. Excavators added potato furrows - barriers made of uncompacted earth. Meanwhile, more rain fell. In the southern part of the valley twenty inches fell in a day and a half.
At Old River Control, on an ordinary day, when the still pool sounds like Victoria Falls, but otherwise the land is calm and dry - when sandy expanses and clumps of trees fill the view between the structure and the Mississippi - an almost academic effort. is required by a six Visualize a floor-high sheet of water extending to the edges of the perspective. That's what happened in 1973. During the continual spring floods—week after week—collected drainage from Central America flowed into the Old River in units of over two million cubic feet per second. 25 percent of them left the Mississippi Channel and went to Atchafalaya. Trees and fields were no longer visible from the air, and the corps' besieged fortress looked extremely vulnerable - a narrow passage, a thin, fragile line across a brown sea.
The Corps had built control of the Old River to control everything that crossed it. In mid-March, as the volume began to approach that crowd, the curiosity of Raphael G. Kazmann, author of a book entitled Modern Hydrology and professor of civil engineering at Louisiana State University, got the better of him. Kazmann climbed into his car, crossed the Mississippi River on the Baton Rouge High Bridge, and headed north to the Old River. He parked, got out, and walked around the building. An extremely small percentage of her five hundred and sixty-six feet satiated her curiosity. "The whole wretched thing was vibrating," he recalled years later, adding that it sounded like he was on a platform at a small rural train station with "a fully loaded load passing by." Kazmann chose not to wait for the kitchen. "I thought this thing weighed two hundred thousand tons. When two hundred thousand tons vibrate like that, there's no place for Professor R. G. Kazmann - and thank God there's no responsibility."
Kazmann says the Tennessee River and Missouri River were "the two main culprits" in the 1973 flood. In each flood, the big contributions vary around the watershed. A final flood could affect them all. After Kazmann returned home from Old River in 1973, he did his potamology indoors for a while, compiling numbers daily. With some numbers he felt strong vibrations. In his words: "I've been watching Ohio like a hawk because if that happens, I thought, Katie, lock the door!"
The water was already quite high and was steadily advancing through the structure. Nowhere in the Mississippi Valley were the velocities greater than here where the water took its hydraulic leap and fell over what Kazmann describes as "concrete falls" in the Atchafalaya regime. The structure and its pool were configured to dissipate energy, but not so much. The excess force attacked the area around the structure. A large vortex formed. No one knew that its vortex power was digging up sediment through the structure's entrance apron. Larger holes formed under the apron itself. Unfortunately, Mississippi's main force crashed into the south side of the tributary channel, creating unplanned turbulence. The control structure was built close to the outside of a bend in the river and closer to the Mississippi River than many engineers thought prudent.
On the exit side - where the water fell to the level of the Atchafalaya - a hole formed that was larger and deeper than a football stadium and similar in shape. It was, of course, hidden deep beneath the wild water. The corps had been forced to leave all eleven gates open to reduce as much as possible the force shaking the building, and therefore there was no alternative but to aggravate the impact on the bottom of the canal. Adding to the weight of the structure were centipedes made of stilts—steel H-beams that descended at various angles, like stilts, ninety feet through sand and silt, through clayey peat and organic dirt. There was never any question of anchoring such a fortress to the rock. The flattest rock was seven thousand feet deep. In three places below the structure, steel plates projected from the ground like slats; but the integrity of the structure largely depended on the H-beams, and vehicular traffic continued to traverse them on the way to San Luis Rey.
Then, as now, LeRoy Dugas was the person whose hand controlled Old River Control - a thought that makes you smile. "We couldn't close any of the gates," he remarked to me one day in Old River. “A lot of water ran through the structure. The rockfill contained tower stones and each stone weighed seven tons. At street level, the vibrations intensified. The operator of a mobile crane let the crane run without him and waited for him at the end of the structure. Dugie continued: "You could go up to the top of the structure in your car and open the door, and she would close the door." The crisis resembled the magnitude of the "Flood of '27" when Dugie was a baby. Somewhere in the valley during the flood 27 there was a railway bridge with a train loaded with coal. The train was placed there because its weight could help hold the bridge in place, but the bridge's vibration in the flood caused so much friction that the coal in the gondolas caught fire. Soon the bridge, train and glowing coal fell into the water.
On an April night in 1973 - at the height of the tide - a fisherman entered the structure. After all, there is order in the universe and some things take precedence over impending catastrophes. On the upstream side, facing the Mississippi, the structure was surrounded by two guide walls that reached out like curved arms to let in water. Near the bulkhead at the south end was the swirling vortex, which had now become a whirlpool. There were other moves too, or so it seemed. The fisherman went to see Dugas at his command post at the north end of the structure and reported that the bulkhead had moved. Dugie told the fisherman that he saw things. The fisherman nodded in agreement.
When Dugie himself went to look at the guide wall, he gave it one last look. "He slipped into the river, into the tributary." Slowly it dipped, sank, broke. Her foundations are gone. There was nothing below except water. Professor Kazmann likes to say that was when the Corps turned "eagerly green". Whatever the engineers felt, as soon as the water subsided they began to assess the extent of the damage. The structure has obviously been damaged, but how much and where? What was solid, what wasn't? What was just below the gates and the road? Using a diamond drill, they drilled the first of many holes in the structure at a center point. When they reached ground level, they placed a television camera in the hole. You saw fish.
THAT WAS HARDthe first time an attempt to control Mississippi had failed. Old River, 1973, was just the most iconic place and moment of failure over the course of three centuries. From the earliest days of settlement, failure on the river was commonplace - a fact often obscured by the powerful ambition that drove people to build cities and towns where almost any camper would be reluctant to pitch a tent.
Traveling by canoe through the swamps of the Louisiana River, you can get restless as the sun goes down. You look for a place - a place to sleep, a place to cook. There is no firm ground. Nothing is more solid than duckweed, resting in the water like green tow. You glide silently through the woods and occasionally break into areas of open lakes. You search at dawn for a dark layer of bare ground. When you finally see one, cast it, no matter how limited. Your camp may be smaller than your tent, but you've found your ground in this amphibious environment. They settled the same way the French settled New Orleans. So what does it matter if your leg spends the night in the water?
The water is from the state of New York, the state of Montana, the province of Alberta, and everywhere else under this chart. There are places far above the Rio Velho where the floodplain is over 100 miles wide. Spaniards in the 16th century found it at the wrong time, saw an ocean moving south, and may have been discouraged. Where the delta began, at the Old River, the water spread out further—through a palimpsest of inlets and tributaries into wooded swamp basins—but that did not stop the French. For military and commercial reasons they wanted a city in such a country. They designed it in 1718, just a few months before a major flood. Even as New Orleans rose, its foundations filled with water. The message in the landscape couldn't be clearer: like the Aborigines, you can fish, harvest and move on, but you can't build there – you can't create a city, much less a cluster of humble settlements – without declaring war on Nature. You didn't have to be Dutch to understand this, or French to ignore it. The people of southern Louisiana were often compared unfavorably to pre-Aswan Nile farmers, who lived in the highlands, farmed low soil, and allowed the floods to come and go according to the rhythms of nature. In Louisiana, however, there were differences. There was no elevation worth mentioning, and the farmers had to live on their plantations. Nile water was warm; Mississippi brought cold floods from the north, sometimes lasting for months, dooming agriculture for the year. If people were successful in farming in the rich clay soils of the natural levees - or anywhere near them - they could not allow the Mississippi to remain in its natural state. Herbert Kassner, director of public relations for the department, once remarked to me: “This river used to meander through its floodplains. People moved their tipis and that was it.
When rivers overflow, the expansion of the water immediately decreases, letting the heaviest sediments fall. The finer the silt, the more widely it is dispersed, but it falls so close to the river that the natural dykes rise over time. The first homes in New Orleans were built on the natural dikes overlooking the river. Given the disaster, there was no better place. If there was a New Orleans, the levees themselves would have to be raised, and the owners instructed to do the raising. This law (1724) was as effective as the ordinances that required northern landlords and shopkeepers to shovel snow from their driveways. As strange as it seems now, these initial dykes were only three feet high and riddled with imperfections. Insofar as they were effective, they owed much to the land beyond the river, where there were no artificial dikes and the water that breached its banks flowed to the horizon. In 1727, the French colonial governor declared the New Orleans dam complete, adding that within a year it would be extended several miles upstream and downstream to flood-proof the community. The governor's name was Perrier. If words could stop the water, Perrier found they would establish an enduring genre.
New Orleans sank in 1735—and again in 1785. The intervals—like those between San Francisco earthquakes—were usually long enough to give people a false sense of security. In response to the massive floods, they lengthened and raised the dikes. A levee appeared across the river from New Orleans, and in 1812 the west bank was brought close to the Old River, a few hundred miles upriver. At that time, the east bank was dammed up to Baton Rouge. None of the dykes were continuous. Both protected the plantation lands. Where the land remained as the Choctaws knew it, the floodwaters spread sideways, reducing the threat elsewhere. Land was not cheap—forty acres cost three thousand dollars—but the demand for riverside plantations was such that by 1828 the levees in southern Louisiana were continuous and the river artificially restricted. In case the dykes failed, a few plantation houses - among their fields of sugar cane, their long rows of bright oranges - were built on Indian burial mounds. In 1828 Bayou Manchac was closed. In the entire plain of the Mississippi Delta, Bayou Manchac was the only tributary going east. It was dammed at the source. Its introduction would no longer relieve pressure from the main stream.
By that time, Henry Shreve had appeared on the scene - in many ways to change it forever. He was the consummate river man: boatswain, pilot, entrepreneur, empirical naval architect. He is credited with creating the flat-hulled, stern-wheel steamer Mississippi, whose shallow draft is the result of moving machinery from bottom to top on its own deck. However, the Mississippi steamship was not invented. It evolved. And Shreve's contribution was less setup than power. A steamship built and piloted by Henry Shreve traveled north against the current to Louisville. He showed that trade can go both ways. However, navigation was hampered by hazards on the river - the worst of which were massive trees that had strayed south over the years and become bogged down in various ways. One species was rigid on the riverbed and stood up like a spear. It was called planter. Another, known as a sawyer, rose and fell with the whims of the current and would likely swoop up onto a boat and wreck it. On the Yukon River, these logs - which bend forever - are known as preachers. In Mississippi, whatever the names of the stuck logs were all "hooks," and after Army engineers appointed Shreve, a civilian, as their superintendent of West River Improvements, he acted like a dentist pulling out stumps. Multihull hooks were devices of his invention. On the Red River, he undertook to dismantle a "raft" - tens of thousands of uprooted trees that disrupted shipping for one hundred and sixty miles. Shreve covered eighty miles in one year. Meanwhile, at 31 degrees north latitude (about halfway between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge), he took a bold step up the Mississippi River. In the sinusoidal course of the river, each meander tended to grow until its curve was so great that it intersected. At 31 degrees north latitude there was a west bend loop eighteen miles in circumference that had so nearly retreated back on itself that Shreve decided to help it. He converted one of his hooks into a dredge, and after two weeks of digging into the narrow neck, a good, fast current flowed. Mississippi quickly took over. The width of Shreve's new channel doubled in two days. A few more days and it would become the river's main channel.
The big loop at 31 degrees north happened where Red Atchafalaya entered Mississippi, like two brackets back to back. The steamboats ran into trouble there in the colliding waters. Shreve's intention in cutting the loop was to give the boats a smoother, shorter route while also speeding up the Mississippi and lowering its crests, even slightly, at high tide. One effect of the shutdown was to increase the flow of water from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya and bring forward the final date of abstraction. Where the current now drained from the Mississippi, it followed a severed meander arm. This small body of water soon became known as the Old River. In less than two weeks, it was removed as a segment of the Mississippi main trunk and redesigned as a sort of surgical drain.
In town and country, bank owners were sensitive to the fact that the dykes they were required to build protected not only their property but also the property behind it. To spread the costs, dyke districts were created, administered by dyke committees. The more the dams restricted the flow, the more destructive it became when they broke. A place where the water broke was known as a crevasse - a source of terror no less potent than the breaking of a dam - and the great ones, like other great catastrophes, were commemorated by various proper names: Macarty Crevasse (1816), Sauvé Column (1849). Dyke inspectors were empowered to challenge male slaves aged between fifteen and sixty whose owners lived seven miles from Troubles. By mid-century, dykes averaged six feet high - twice their original height - and calculations indicated that the river line would rise. Most levee districts were not populous enough to meet the multiplier costs, so the United States Congress passed the Swamp Lands and Overflow Act in 1850. It is possible that none of Peter's friends were so generous as to give your money to Paul. The federal government ceded millions of acres of swampland to the states along the river, and the states sold the area to pay for the levees. The Swamp Act granted Louisiana alone eight and a half million acres of swamps and river marshes. Other states received a total of over twenty million. Historically, these river marshes have been the natural reservoirs where floodwater was received and retained and gradually released as the tide went out. Where there was wood (including virgin cypress) marsh sold for seventy-five cents an acre, twelve and a half cents where there were no trees. New owners were almost always absent. An absentee was a Yankee. The new owners drained much of the swamp, turning it into farmland, and asked that new, larger dykes be secured. At this point, Congress may have wondered what was the act and what was the swamp.
River levels, in their various variations, generally became higher over time as the water presented lower flows. People began to wonder if the dikes would be high enough and strong enough to make the river safe. Possibly a system of dams and reservoirs on the tributaries of the upper valley could hold water and release it during the driest months, and perhaps a system of spillways and flood channels could be built in the lower valley to distribute water during the great rains. full. From the 1850s, these ideas were the subject of heated debate between civil and military engineers. Four major floods in ten years and thirty-two catastrophic breaches from a single source were not enough to make the Corps feel that dams alone would never do the job. As things were, the body was still not responsible. District by district, state by state, the dyke system was still fragmented. In the fight against water there was no supreme command. In one of the corps' official histories, the situation is expressed in this rather worried sentence: "By 1860 it had become increasingly evident that a successful war on so vast a battlefield could only be fought by a consolidated army under an authority." As the Civil War came and went, the river's location did not change. Vicksburg fell but did not move. The dykes failed in the floods of 1862, 1866 and 1867. Despite the disasters, Bayou Plaquemine - a major tributary of the Mississippi and a natural tributary for large percentages of flood water from the source - was closed in 1868 and its mouth into the Mississippi sealed with a earth dam. Even in normal stadiums, the Mississippi began to rise like a great vein on the back of the hand. The river of the seventies flowed higher than ever.
Finally, in 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission, which included civilians but gave supremacy to the corps. The chairman of the commission was always an army engineer, and all decisions were subject to the corps commander's veto. Congress imperatively ordered the commission to "prevent destructive flooding," leaving it to the Corps to say how. The Corps remained committed to the argument that dikes and reservoirs, and downstream spillways, would create more problems than they would solve. "Holding through dykes" was the way to get the job done.
The commission's national importance is perhaps illustrated by the fact that one of its first civilian members was Benjamin Harrison. Another was James B. Eads, probably the most brilliant engineer who ever turned his attention to Mississippi. As a young man, he walked on the ground under a device of his own invention, which he called a submarine. As a naval architect during the Civil War, he designed the first American battleships. He later built the first permanent bridge over the river's main stream south of the Missouri at St. Louis. Louis. More recently, despite the collective wisdom of nearly everyone in his profession, he had solved a fundamental question in anadromous navigation: how to get into the river. The estuary was defended by a mud block - impenetrable masses of sediment dumped by the river as it entered the calm waters of the Gulf. Dredging was useless. What would make a channel deep enough for ships? The government didn't want to fund it, so Eads gambled his considerable fortune on an elegant idea: he built parallel piers in the river's estuary. They pinched the chains. The rushing waters dug and maintained a navigable channel.
The Corps' belief that a dyked river would also take care of itself greatly enhanced the Molen's success. And Eads added words that spoke louder than his actions. “If the engineering profession were not based on exact science,” he said, “I would tremble at the result, given the immense interests that depend on my success. But every atom that moves with the flow, from the moment it leaves its home among the crystal springs or the snows of the mountains, through the fifteen hundred miles of its tortuous path, until it is finally lost in the vast waters of the Gulf , is controlled by laws as firm and sure as those which guide the majestic march of the celestial spheres Every phenomenon and apparent eccentricity of the river - its attrition and spilling action, its collapsing banks, the formation of the bars at its mouth, the action of the waves and tides of the sea over its currents and deposits is controlled by laws as immutable as the Creator, and the engineer need only be sure that he is not ignorant of the existence of any of these laws to appreciate the results, which he aspires to have a positive certainty.
When the Commission was formed, Mark Twain was forty-three years old. One book he was working on was Life on the Mississippi. Through a character named Uncle Mumford, he noted that "Four years at West Point and many books and study will teach a man a lot, I think, but they won't teach him flow." Twain also wrote: “He who knows the Mississippi will at once assert—not aloud, but to himself—that ten thousand river commissions, with the mines of the world at their backs, cannot, cannot, tame, subdue, or restrain this the river says to him, "Go here" or "Go there" and make him obey; it cannot save any shore that doomed it; it cannot block its path with an obstacle that it will not knock down, dance and laugh. But a discreet man will not put these things into words; because West Point engineers have no superiors anywhere; they know everything there is to know about their obscure science; and so, once they realize that they can tie and shackle that flow and govern it, it is only wisdom for the unscientific man to keep quiet, cover himself, and wait until they do. Captain Eads, with his piers at the mouth of the Mississippi, accomplished a job that plainly seemed impossible; nor do we now feel full confidence in prophesying against similar impossibilities. Otherwise, it would be said that the Commission could very well bully comets in their courses and try to force them to behave, like trying to correct and sanitize Mississippi to force behavior.
In 1882 came the most devastating flood of the 19th century. After the dykes broke into two hundred and eighty-four cracks, the water spread over seventy miles. In the fertile lands on both sides of the Rio Velho, crops were deeply submerged and cattle survived on flatboats. A floating journalist who covered these scenes in New Orleans on March 29Times Democratsaid: "The current down the Atchafalaya was very swift, the Mississippi showing an affinity in that direction, which need only be seen to support the opinion of that river's desperate efforts to find a short route to the Gulf." In other words, the conquest of Mississippi was obvious enough to be noticed by a journalist. Seventy-eight years earlier - shortly after the Louisiana Purchase - the army officer who wanted to take possession of the new land found that the Atchafalaya was "completely blocked by logs and other materials" and said in his report: "If these obstacles were not , the probability is, that the Mississippi will soon find a much closer path to the Gulf than it presently does, especially as it shows a constant tendency to change course. The head of the Atchafalaya was clogged with logs for thirty miles. The raft was so compact that El Camino Real, the Spanish trail from Texas, crossed the Atchafalaya near its head and cattle driven towards the Mississippi River walked over the logs. the Atchafalaya to lower its level. Snag boats worked on it and attempts were made to clear it with fire. The flood of 1863 apparently broke it, and immediately the Atchafalaya began to widen and deepen, increasing its influence in Mississippi. Shreve's cleaning of the Red River also increased the flow of the Atchafalaya. The intrusive human engineering skills needed to stop the great change in Old River in the 20th century did much to accelerate it in the 19th century.
For forty-eight years, the Mississippi River Commission and the Corps of Engineers strictly adhered to the policy of "maintain by dykes" - dykes and dykes only. It was important that no water escape the river, as its full force would be more effective in clearing the bed, deepening the channel, increasing velocity, lowering steps, and preventing destructive flooding. This was not just the US plumbing and hydrology philosophy. Army Corps of Engineers, but also the great 17th-century scholar Domenico Guglielmini, whose insights turned out to be so ineffective in the Po Valley. In 1885, one of General Sands' predecessors said: "The Commission clearly supports the idea of closing all exits...
Slaves with wheelbarrows started the dykes. Immigrants with wheelbarrows replaced slaves. Mule-drawn scrapers replaced wheelbarrows, but not until the 20th century. Fifteen hundred miles of earthworks - about six, then nine, then twelve feet high and thirty feet across - were built by men with shovels. They wove huge mats from willow sticks and placed them in landfills as linings. When the floods came, they went out to defend their defenses and, according to a Corps publication, the effort was comparable to "the hardship of the battlefield". Nature was not always the only enemy. Anywhere along the river, people were safer when the dam broke on the other side. If you lived on the east side, maybe you wouldn't be sad if water flooded west. You would also be safer if the dam on your side broke downstream. Armed patrolmen were going up and down the dikes. They looked for grains of sand - signs of seepage that could open a fissure from the inside. And they were looking for private commandos who landed in the dark with dynamite.
Bayou Lafourche, a major tributary, was dammed in 1904. In about twenty years, the river's increasing confinement raised Memphis' floodwaters by an average of about 8 feet (2.4 m). The corps remained faithful to Guglielmini's teachings, and there were still statements that the river was finally under control and that destructive flooding would not occur again. Statements of this kind were made in the quiet times before the great floods of 1884, 1890, 1891, 1897, 1898 and 1903, and would be made again before 1912, 1913, 1922 and 1927.
The flood of 27 tore up the valley. On both sides of the river the causeways divided from Cairo to the Gulf, and in the same thousand miles the flood washed away all the bridges. Killed hundreds of people, thousands of animals. Overbank covered twenty-six thousand square miles. He stayed in the country for up to three months. New Orleans was saved by the explosion of a dam downstream. But the total volume of the 1927 flood was far from a record. It wasn't a flood of the century. It was a kind of explosion achieved by the containment dams.
A DÄHNE DEThe 1920s were about six times as high as their early predecessors, but they weren't really any more effective. In a way, they were an empirical experiment - one thousand five hundred kilometers of trial and error. They could - and would - be increased further. But in 1927 the results of the experiment finally came to light. The dykes helped to exacerbate the problem they were designed to solve. Walls alone could only build an absurdly high aqueduct. Resistance times resistance distance amplifies the power of nature. Every phenomenon and apparent eccentricity of flow may be subject to laws as firm and certain as those which direct the majestic march of the celestial spheres, but if so, the laws have been imprecisely understood. The body had attacked Antaeus without knowing exactly who he was.
Congress authorized three hundred million dollars to find out. That was more money on one bill—hopefully titled the Flood Control Act (1928)—than had been spent on dykes in Mississippi in all of colonial and American history. That was the seed money for the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, the coordinated defense that would fall incomplete in the 1980s and ended up costing an estimated $7 billion. The project would raise and build new dikes, pave slopes, cut curves to direct flow, and retain large volumes of water with significant dams on tributaries. The dredgers, known as dustpans, would scoop up millions of tons of sediment. Stone dams popped up in strategic locations, forcing water to flow around them, preventing the channel from spreading. Most importantly, the design would recognize the superiority of the force it was designed to handle. This would restore a measure of freedom to the river that was lost when the tributaries of the delta were sealed off one by one. It would enter the dykes at certain points and build floodgates that could be opened in times of exceptional flooding. The water coming out of these spillways would enter new dike systems, channeling it to the Gulf through floodplains. But how many bursts? How many floods? How many secondary dams? The corps calculated the maximum storms, storm frequency, maximum snowmelt, sustained saturation of the upper valley, and simultaneous storms in isolated parts of the watershed, and arrived at the number that Noah would levitate. The round number was three million - that is, three million cubic feet per second passing through the Old River. This was twenty-five percent above the high of 1927. Extended control with its array of devices must be designed for this. Various names have been given to this blue moon superflux, this concatenation of recorded moments written into an unknown future. It was called the design flood. Alternatively, it was referred to as Project Flood.
Bonnet Carre was the first spillway, completed in 1931, about thirty miles upriver from New Orleans. The water was to flow into Lake Pontchartrain and further into the Gulf, distributing 8.5% of the project's flood. Bonnet Carre (pronounced "Bonny Carey" locally) would replace the dynamite in the New Orleans defense. When the great ridge of 1937 came down the river and set an all-time record at Natchez, enough improvements had been made to pass with relative safety, with the final and supreme test being presented at Bonnet Carre, where the goals were set wide open for the first time. At the highest point, more than two hundred thousand feet per second were diverted into Lake Pontchartrain, and the current that passed through New Orleans left the city deep and dry.
For the Corps of Engineers, not to mention the people of Southern communities, the triumph of 1937 brought renewed courage, renewed confidence - a sense once again that the flow could be directed. Maj. Gen. Harley B. Ferguson, the division commander, became a regional military hero. It was he who championed the project's various cuts, all made in the decade since 1927, that shortened the river by more than 100 miles, decreasing friction against the water. The more distance, the more friction. Friction slows the flow and increases its level. The mainline dykes were rebuilt, lengthened and strengthened - and their height nearly doubled to 30 feet. A Great Wall of China now ran on either side of the river, the difference being that the dykes, though each were as long as the Great Wall, were taller in many places and ten times larger in cross-section. Work on the flood systems continued. There was one in Missouri that took water out of the river and put it back in the river a few miles downstream. But the most important launch channel - without which the hood would be as useful as a spoon - was the Atchafalaya route. As its lower part was the largest river marsh in North America, it was naturally prepared to store water. The Corps built dikes about seventeen miles away to shape runoff towards Atchafalaya Bay while also framing the marsh. North of Atchafalaya, near the Old River, they built a three-chamber flood system with so many intersecting dikes that the country soon resembled a cranberry farm developed to epic proportions. The West Atchafalaya Floodway was so crowded and soy that its levees could only be breached with explosives as a last resort—perhaps once every hundred years. Completed in the 1950s, the Morganza Floodway contained farmland but no permanent buildings. Some towns and the occasional refinery were surrounded by ring-shaped dikes. But the flat geometry of the flood channels was designed primarily to funnel Mississippi water into the swamp.
The 1928 flood control plan had left the Old River open - the only tributary of the Mississippi that remained in its natural state. The army was aware of the Atchafalaya threat. Colonel Charles Potter, chairman of the Mississippi River Commission, told Congress in 1928 that Mississippi was "eager to go in that direction". However, nothing resulted from his statement in the new master plan. The Corps planned when creating their flowcharts that the Atchafalaya would occupy nearly half of Mississippi during the Design Flood. It wasn't design that Atchafalaya took everything.
The still-expanding Atchafalaya has become one of the three or four largest rivers in the United States in terms of discharge volume. Compared to Mississippi, it had a three-to-one grade advantage. In the 1950s, geologists predicted that by 1975 the change would be unstoppable. The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project would be largely obsolete, the entire southern Louisiana levee system would have to be rebuilt, communities like Morgan City in the Atchafalaya Basin would be far less preserved than Pompeii, and the new Mississippi Estuary would have one hundred and twenty miles from the old one to be removed. Old River Control was authorized in 1954.
The dams were raised again. What was enough in 1937 was problematic in the 1950s. New notes were defined. New dollars were issued to service the notes. Often compared to the Great Wall of China, the dykes had more in common with the Maginot Line. Together they were a retroactive bulwark, more than adequate to fight a past war but below the demands of the war to come. The levee grades of the 1950s would prove insufficient in the 1970s. Every mall, every drainage improvement, every square foot of new sidewalk in nearly half of the United States accelerated the flow into Louisiana. Streams were channeled to drain swamps. Meanders have been cut to speed up the flow. The natural storage capacities of the valley were everywhere reduced. As the contributing factors increased, the river provided more flood for less rainfall. The precipitation that caused the great flood of 1973 was only about twenty percent above normal. However, the coat of arms of St. Louis was the highest ever recorded there. The flood proved that control of Mississippi was as great a hope for the future as control of Mississippi ever was. The 1973 flood was nothing like a project flood. He only came close to ending the project.
As the control structure of the Old River trembled, more than a third of the Mississippi flowed down the Atchafalaya. If the structure had collapsed, the flow would have increased to seventy percent. It was enough to scare not only a Louisiana State University professor, but the division commander himself. At that time, it was Major General Charles Noble. He walked across the bridge, looked into the exploding water, and later wrote these words: "The southern training wall on the Mississippi side of the structure broke very early in the tide, causing violent vortex patterns and extreme turbulence. The fallen monoliths of the wall of training made the situation worse. The integrity of the structure was highly questionable at this point. It was frightening to stand over the portal bays and experience the unnerving vibrations caused by the violently turbulent and massive tides.
Had the general known what lay beneath him, he might have called for a retreat. The Old River Control Structure—that two-hundred-thousand-ton cornerstone of the comprehensive flood-control project for the lower Mississippi Valley—swayed on steel stilts over vast water-filled cavities. The gates of the Morganza Floodway, thirty miles downriver, never opened. Morganza soy producers have asked the Corps not to open them now. The Corps mulled this over for a few days while the Rio Velho Control Structure, which was absorbing shocks that could topple a skyscraper, continued to shake. The Corps eased some of the pressure and opened up Morganza.
Damage to the Old River increased but was not triggered by the 1973 flood. The invasive clearing of the canal bed and destruction of the control structure may have begun in 1963, immediately after the structure opened. Occasionally over the next few years, loose barges crashed into the gates, getting stuck there for months, blocking the flow, increasing the hydraulic leap and no doubt contributing to the collapse. Excavation holes formed on both sides of the control structure and constantly expanded. If they had met in 1973, they could have knocked the structure down.
Once the waters calmed and the concrete was drilled by exploratory diamond drills, Old River Control immediately became, and remains, the highest national priority construction project for the US Army Corps of Engineers. More plate-diameter holes were drilled into the surface of Louisiana 15, the street that runs through the structure, and mortar was placed in the cavities below, like fillings in a row of molars. The mortar was cement and bentonite. Drilling and filling took months. There was no alternative but to leave the gates open and relinquish control. The load on the structure was less when the gates were open. The turbulence in the channel was correspondingly greater. The increased turbulence allowed the water on the Atchafalaya side to go deeper and increase its advantage over the Mississippi side. As the Corps reported, "the percentage of the Mississippi River that was diverted by the uncontrolled structure steadily increased". It couldn't be helped.
After three and a half years, control was partially restored, but the extent was limited. In the words of the Corps: “The partial weakening of the foundation that occurred in 1973 inflicted permanent damage on the foundation of the low sill control structure in a potential catastrophic failure. The foundation under about fifty percent of the structure has been drastically and irrevocably altered.” The structure was designed to function with a maximum difference of thirty-seven feet between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya sides. That maximum now had to be reduced to twenty-two feet - a reduction which gave rise to the humor in the expression "Old River Control". Robert Fairless, a New Orleans district engineer who has long been a part of Old River history, once told me that "for a few months in 1973, everything was in flux" and the situation was still precarious - two feet, there's risk of losing everything," he said. "If the loose barges were pulled to the front of the structure, where they would block the flow, the head would increase and there was nothing we could do about it."
A plaque appeared on one of the ward's three remaining walls:
FISHING AND DIVING IN THE SHADOW OF THIS WING WALL IS PROHIBITED
A research boat, marine gray, very efficient and very similar to PT-109, began to sail upstream through the brown and choppy rapids towards the headwaters. This continued year after year. The research boat stops in the whaling waves a few meters in front of the structure. Two men in life jackets, standing on the swaying deck in a jet that curls like smoke, release a 50-pound ball that falls from a large stainless steel spool onto a cable. The ball drops to the ground. Crew members observe the depth. You're not looking for Mark Twain. For example, in 1974 they found three holes so deep that it took 185,000 tons of rock to fill them.
The 1973 flood shook the control structure far more than the Corps' confidence. When a Legislative Committee appeared concerned, a Corps general reassured it by saying, "The Corps of Engineers can take Mississippi where the Corps directs." dry road alongside a dike while a Galilee circumnavigates the ridge of the dike on the other side. This image alone is a triumph for the Corps. Herbert Kassner, head of public relations and a master of his craft, says of the photo: "Of course I tell people that the school bus may be full of workers trying to repair a breach in the dike, but it looks good. And of course, afterwards By 1973, the streamlines had been recalculated and the dikes had to be raised. When the river would come back against the stratosphere was just a matter of time.
Washington Postdrew attention to the Corps' efforts to stop the Great Change at Old River in a November 1980 editorial, concluding with this paragraph:
Who will win as this slow-motion confrontation between man and nature continues? Nobody really knows. But after seeing Mt. St. Helens and hearing the speculation about his performance, if we had to bet, we would bet on the river.
The Corps had already seen that gamble and was about to break it too. Even before the mud from the 1973 flood dried up, Fire Department engineers began building a model of the Old River at their Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg. The model should cover one and a half hectares. A model this size was modest for the Corps. Not far away was a fifty-acre model of the Mississippi drainage, where the water gushing from the dendritic tips could accumulate and attack Louisiana. The scale was one human step per mile. In the time it took to say "one Mississippi" when fourteen gallons passed through Arkansas City, it was a deluge of design. Something like eight and a half gallons was "a flood event". "It's the best sandbox - these guys have made the sandbox their thing," said Tulane's Oliver Houck with secret admiration. "They put the whole river in a sandbox." The Old River model not only helped with repairs, but also showed the need for additional fortification. With the first control structure damaged beyond repair, a second one nearby, with its own tributary of the Mississippi, was designed to provide full control of the Old River and relieve the original structure during periods of high stress.
To refine the engineering of the auxiliary structure, several additional models with moving beds were built in distorted scale. It was believed that making the vertical scale larger than the horizontal scale would eliminate surface tension problems when simulating the turbulence of a real river. The gutter beds were covered with crushed coal - half the specific gravity of sand - or walnut shells, which were thought to be better replicas of the rock used to protect the gutter, but had an unfortunate tendency to crack and release gas bubbles. In one model, the stabilization basin under the new structure was filled with driveway-sized limestone gravel, each piece representing a six-foot-thick tower. After enough water had flowed through these models to satisfy the designers, the ground was opened in the Old River, about a quarter of a mile from the damaged threshold, for the Old River Auxiliary Control Structure, the most advanced weapon ever developed to prevent the capture of a River—a handsome gift of three hundred million dollars to the American Ruhr. In Vicksburg, Robert Fletcher – a heavy construction football engineer who explained the walnut shells, coal and gravel to me – said of the new structure: "I hope it works."
The former auxiliary structure to control the river is a series of seven towers, each with a white crown. They are vertical on the upstream side, sloping towards the Atchafalaya. Therefore, they resemble foothills overlooking the Mississippi River. The towers are separated by six arched gates, convex to the Mississippi River, and hinged on trunnion blocks secured with steel to direct the force of the river into the center of the structure. Lifted by ropes, these so-called tinter gates are as light and graceful as anything that can weigh a combined 2,600 tons. Each of them is sixty-two feet wide. They are the strongest the Corps has ever designed and built. A work of engineering like a Maillart bridge or a Christian Menn bridge can surpass any other work of art, as it is not only a gift to the imagination, but structural in the matrix of the world. The support structure at Old River contains too many working components to be associated with such a bridge, but in size and profile it would not put a pharaoh to shame.
The original Old River Control project, which began operations in 1963, cost $86 million. Repair and supplement work brought the total cost of the battle to five hundred million. The mismatch in these numbers reflects inflation, of course, but to a much greater extent it reflects the cost of lessons learned. This reflects the fact that no one can find the words to say that in 1973 the control structure failed. New isn't just bigger, better, and more expensive; Furthermore, there are undoubtedly redundancies in the '73 memory technique.
1983 saw the third major flood of the 20th century - a narrow but decisive victory for the Corps. The Old Auxiliary River Control Structure was, at this point, little more than a foundation recently laid in dry soil. The mortar in the old structure held the Old River together. Across the Mississippi, a few miles downriver, the water at the Louisiana Maximum Security Penitentiary reached ominous levels. The prison was not only protected by the main dike, but also by its own ring dike. However, as it seemed for a while, water would pour into the prison. The state would have to relocate the prisoners, bus them onto the highway system, and risk God knows what. The state knelt before the body: do something. The corps assessed the situation and decided to bet on the rehabilitation of the control structure against the rehabilitation of prisoners. By allowing more water to pass through the control structure, the Corps lowered the prison's water level.
Seen from 5,000 or 6,000 feet, the structures along the Old River inspire less confidence than up close. They feel transient, fragile, very much transcended by the natural world—a Mississippi River injury covered in butterfly surgical tape. Nearby, a large hydroelectric power plant is under construction, which will take advantage of the fall between the two rivers and, among other things, will supply electricity to the city of Vidalia. The channel that was opened for this brings to three the number of artificial drains opened locally in the Mississippi River, making the Old River a complex of channels and artificial islands, giving it the appearance of a marina. Corpsis is officially confident that all of this will stay that way and backs its claim with a lot more than nuts. The amount of limestone imported from Kentucky is enough to baffle a geologist. As Fred Chatry once said, "The Corps of Engineers believes that Mississippi can be persuaded to remain where it is."
I once asked Fred Smith, a geologist who works for the Corps at the New Orleans borough headquarters, if he thought Old River Control would eventually be overwhelmed. He said: “Capture does not have to take place in control structures. It can happen elsewhere too. The river is nearby, a little to the north. The whole area is suspect. The Mississippi wants to flow westward - three was a forty year flood. The big one is somewhere out there - when the structures can't drain all the floodwater and the dam has to give way. Then the river will leap over its banks and try to break through."
Geologists generally declared capture inevitable, but of course it was. You know that in 1852 the Yellow River diverted its course from the Yellow Sea and created a new estuary 650 kilometers from the old one. You know the stories of catastrophic shifts on the Mekong, Indus, Po, Volga, Tigris and Euphrates. The Rosetta tributary of the Nile was the main stream of the river three thousand years ago.
Raphael Kazmann, the hydrology engineer who is now emeritus in the state of Louisiana, sat me down in his office in Baton Rouge, had me turn on a tape recorder, and said, referring to Old River Control, "I have nothing against it. Corps of Engineers. I may be a critic, but I'm not mad at anyone. It's a good project. Don't get me wrong. These guys are the best. If it doesn't work for them, nobody can do it."
A tape recorder was not needed to give the impression that no one could. "More and more energy is being wasted there," says Kazmann. “Floods are more common. As time goes on, there will be increasing height differences. 73 she almost gave up. Sooner or later it will be undermined or bypassed - give in. I have great respect for the Mother... for our alluvial river. I don't want to be here when that happens."
The Corps would say he won't be.
"Nobody knows where the flood of the century is," continues Kazmann. “The perspective should be at least a hundred years. This is an extremely complicated river system that has been altered by human intervention. A forecast of more than fifty years is unreliable. The data has lost its original character. It's a mixture of hydrological events and human events. Floods over the century increase, low levels decrease. The Corps of Engineers - they're scared as hell. You don't know what will happen. This is planned chaos. The more they plan, the more chaotic it gets. No one knows exactly where this will end up.”
The MISSISSIPPI tugreached the top of a sandbar. The depth gauge reads thirty-eight feet, indicating that there are five fathoms of water between the bottom of the hull and the riverbed. However, the depth gauge is on the port side of the ship and the sandbar is on the starboard side, just a few meters below. So the tug stopped convulsively, broke the stride of two generals, and brought civil servants and dyke planks to the rail. Gen. Sands, the divisional commander, has an expression on his face that suggests Hopkins has just scored Army, but Army will win the game. Some run, some gouge out their eyes, some breathe shallower than the sandbar - but not here in the wheelhouse. John Dugger, the pilot, and Jorge Cano, the local contact pilot, don't show the slightest bit of dismay or surprise on their faces, whatever they're feeling. They are behaving as if targeting downstream at zero knots at medium current is perfectly routine. In a way, that's true, because this is no small navigational challenge like shooting rapids on an aircraft carrier. This is the Atchafalaya River.
A poker player might get out of an analogous situation by grabbing a sleeve. A basketball player turned and shielded the ball, turning his body in a full circle to make the defender flat as a sandbar. John Dugger appears to be both. He cut the engines and now looks interested and nothing else – letting the chain catch the stern and swing it away. The big boat turns, turns back, off the mast and off it.
Conversations pick up again – in the lounge, on the outer decks, in the wheelhouse – and many of them inevitably touch on the subject of controls in Old River. General Sands says: “Between 1950 and 1973, land use intensified in the lower Mississippi – a generation grew up thinking you could grow soybeans here and never get wet. Since 1973, Mother Nature has been trying to catch up. There have been seven floods since 1973. Now the support structure gives these people the security they need to keep the Old River running.”
I'm asking if anyone would agree that Atchafalaya could take Mississippi close to the control structures rather than through them.
General Sands responds, "I don't know if I'm personally smart enough to answer that, but I would say no."
Lieutenant Colonel Ed Willis asks C.J. Nettles, chief of operations for the New Orleans district, whether he thinks the support structure will do the job.
Nettles says, "The jury's out on that one," adding that he's not as confident as others.
A few days ago, in Old River, near the new structure, Nettles and LeRoy Dugas saw a scene filled with barges, work barges, crawling bulldozers, hundreds of feet of newly sunk site-supplied articulated concrete mattress panels, and millions of tons of new limestone fill. Nettles asked Dugie how long he thought the new armor would last.
Dugie said, "Two floods."
General Sands asks a question: "If man had not settled in southern Louisiana, what would it be like today?" How would it be in the nature scenario?” And without waiting for an answer, he gives one himself: “If only nature were here, people – except for a few hunters and fishermen – could not exist here.”
In nature's setting of many manifolds distributing floodwaters left and right along the great delta plain, virtually the entire region would be covered by fresh sediment and water. In an average year, about two hundred million tons of sediment are transported in the river. That's where the Foreland Rockies go, the western Appalachians. Southern Louisiana is a very large piece of mountain butter, eight miles thick where it rests on the continental shelf, half that thick under New Orleans, a mile and a third under Old River. It is the nature of loose sediments to compact, condense and sink to form a crust. The entire Delta Plain, an inverted Super Himalaya, is sinking at varying rates, as it has for thousands of years. Until about 1900, the river and its tributaries were able to compensate for the settlements caused by the amount of fresh sediment released during floods. The distribution has been uneven over the centuries, as channels have shifted and land sinks in one place and fills in another, but overall the land-building process has been positive. It was favored by the rotting vegetation that entered the flooded silt and formed the soil. Vegetation cannot decay unless it grows first, and it has largely grown with nutrients brought in by floods.
"In the 17th century, the Mississippi was very permeable along its banks and in many places the water left it," remembers Fred Chatry. "Only at low tide was it completely closed. Now, in two thousand miles, the first place water will naturally escape from the Mississippi is at Bayou Baptiste Collette - sixty miles below New Orleans."
What was a net gain before 1900 is now a net loss for nearly a hundred years, and the Louisiana we know from Old River and the Acadian world to Bayou Baptiste Collette is sinking. Sediment is retained in the mainline dikes and released into the Gulf at a rate of three hundred and fifty-six thousand tons per day - dropped like peas by a pea shooter over the platform and lost in the abyss plain. As the water rises higher and higher between the dykes, the ground behind the dykes sinks, with the result that the plain of the Mississippi Delta has become an exaggerated Venice, two hundred miles wide - its rivers, its bays, its canals. artificial ones are a mesh of water between the countries that are sinking.
The median strip of highways is water. The parish of St. Bernard, which includes the suburbs of New Orleans and is larger than the state of Delaware, is two percent solid land, eighteen percent marsh, and eighty percent water. A ring dike can surround an entire municipality. A circular dike can surround fifty-five square kilometers of soybeans. Every square meter within an annular dike forces water elsewhere.
An Alexander Calder could revel in these movements - interdependent, interconnected, related to the flow of the Old River. Calder would have understood Old River Control: the place where work is pinned to the ceiling and under which everything – New Orleans, Morgan City, the swamp of the Atchafalaya River – sways and sways.
About half of New Orleans is now below sea level - as much as fifteen feet. Surrounded by levees, New Orleans sits between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi like a wide, flat bowl. Nowhere is New Orleans higher than the natural riverside. Underprivileged people live at the lowest elevations and always have. The rich - by the river - occupy the highest place. In New Orleans, income and height can literally drop: the Garden District at the highest level, Stanley Kowalski in the swamp. The Garden District and surrounding area is known locally as Uptown.
Torrential rain falls on New Orleans - enough to cause flooding within the city walls. The water has nowhere to go. By itself, it would form a sea that would rise inexorably from one level of the economy to another. Then it has to be pumped. Every drop of rain that falls in New Orleans either evaporates or is pumped out. Its removal reduces the water table and accelerates the sinking of the city. Where swamps have been drained to create new settlements, the land will also shrink. People buy landfills to keep up with the Joneses. In the words of Bob Fairless of New Orleans District Engineers, "It's almost an annual spring ritual to collect a plot of soil and fill in the deep spots in the lawn." A child jumping up and down on such a lawn can cause the earth to shift under another child on the other side of the lawn.
Many houses are built on slabs that rest firmly on stilts. When the grass around a house starts to recede, the slab seems to lift. An overhang is created where the driveway was once level with the garage floor. The front sinks like a net. The sidewalk gives way. The ever-increasing bump in the road to the garage is loud enough to knock the front wheels off the road. Sakrete looks like putty next to a windowpane to alleviate the shock. The property sinks another foot. The house stays where it is, on the slab and on the stilts. A ramp will be built to bring the car into the garage. The ramp goes up three feet. But the shipyard soon decreased four. The garage becomes a porch, with hanging plants and steep wooden steps. A garage that is not securely anchored can hang over the side of a house like a third of a folding table. Daylight appears under the house. You can see under the plate and on the other side. More backfill or more concrete is placed around the edges to hide the ugly scene. A gas pipe, cut by the sedimented earth, is leaking under the slab. The sealed cavity fills with gas. The house flies high.
"The people cannot have wells, so they get rainwater," observed Mark Twain in the 1880s. "Neither can they have basements or tombs, as the city is built on 'made' ground; few of the living complain and none of the rest." Others may not complain, but sometimes they leave. New Orleans is not a place for burials. In all large cemeteries, patrons are above ground. During internal torrents, coffins come out of their crypts and down the street.
New Orleans natural aquifer water is modest and even less attractive than river water. The city consumes the sewage of almost half of America and, more directly, of the American Ruhr. Regardless, in 1984, New Orleans took first place in the American Water Works Association's annual Drinking Water Taste Test Challenge.
The river runs through New Orleans like an elevated highway. Jackson Square in the French Quarter sits on higher ground than the rest of New Orleans, but even from the benches in Jackson Square you can see the hulls of ships passing the breakwater. Its keels are taller than the Superdome's artificial turf, and if the ships could somehow turn and cross to the city and stadium at river level, they would hover like aircraft over the field.
In the early 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a new major district headquarters in New Orleans. It's a tetragon, multi-story, with glass panels, and it's right on the river. Its foundation was dug into the main dike. That is, goodbye, leaving your money where your mouth is.
Of the five hundred kilometers of dyke defects now requiring attention along the Mississippi, the most serious is in New Orleans. Among other factors, the freeboard — the height of the seawall above the high tide level — must be higher in New Orleans to handle the waves from ships. Elsewhere, deficiencies vary between a foot and two from the calculated flood flow line, which continues to rise as runoff continues to accelerate and the water becomes increasingly confined. Not only is the water higher. Dikes also tend to sink. They press dirt beneath them and squirt materials out the sides. Their crowns need to be built up. "You throw five feet and sink three feet," a Corps engineer remarked to me one day. This is especially true of the dykes that frame the Atchafalaya swamp. So the Corps gave up fighting the subsidence with bulldozers alone and built concrete walls along the tops of the dikes, creating what appears to be the largest river swamp in North America and what appears to be the largest prison in the world. Of course, it not only retains water, but also silt. Gradually, swampy elevations build up. The people of Acadiana say that the swamp would be the safest place to take refuge in a big flood because the swamp is higher than the land outside the dikes.
As sediment slides down the continental slope and the river is prevented from forming a suitable blanket, while the delta plain declines and is not replenished, erosion eats away at the coastal swamps and much of Louisiana is steadily disappearing. The net loss is over fifty square miles a year. In the mid-19th century, a fort was built about 300 meters from a saltwater bay east of New Orleans. The fort is now collapsing into the bay. In one hundred years, Louisiana has shrunk by a total of one million acres. The Parish of Plaquemines is falling apart like an old, rotten cloth. In a hundred years' time, in all probability, there will be no parish of Plaquemines and no parish of Terrebonne. Such losses are accelerated by access channels to oil and gas well sites. After channels are dredged, they naturally widen, eroding the region from within. A typical three hundred foot oil and gas well will be six hundred feet wide in five years. There are ten thousand miles of canals in Louisiana. In the 1950s, after Louisiana got nervous about the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Corps of Engineers built the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a shipping channel that saves forty miles by crossing swamps directly from New Orleans to the Gulf. The channel is known as Mr. Go, and navigation has largely ignored it. Mr. Go, which has been eroded sideways for 25 years, is three times its original width. It devastated 24,000 acres of wetlands and replaced them with open water. One mile of marsh reduces a coastal storm by about an inch. Where eighty kilometers of swamp have disappeared, an additional eighty centimeters of water are bound to rise. The Corps was forced to deal with this fact by completing the ring of levees around New Orleans, thus creating New Avignon, a medieval walled city accessible by a highway that jumps over the walls.
"The coast is disappearing from view," said Oliver Houck. "We reversed Mother Nature." Hurricanes significantly boost the process of coastal erosion, destroying the landscape that has been weakened by river confinement. The threat of destruction from the south is even greater than the threat from the north.
One day I was visiting Sherwood Gagliano - an independent coastal geologist and regional planner who lives in Baton Rouge. "We must recognize that natural processes cannot be restored," he told me. "We can't go back to the way it was. The best we can do is try to rebalance, try to treat the first symptoms. It's like treating cancer. If you get there early, there's something you can do." Gagliano pushed for water to be diverted to compensate for the nutrient depletion and sediment deprivation caused by the dikes, in other words, to open holes in riverbanks and allow water and sediment to build small deltas in disappearing communities. "If we don't do these things, we're going to end up with a skeletal structure with dams around it - a series of peninsulas all the way to the Gulf," he said. "We'll lose virtually all of our wetlands. The cost of maintaining protected areas will be very high. There will be no protection between them and the shore.
Professor Kazmann of L.S.U. looked less hopeful. He said: "Attempts to save the coast almost spit in the ocean."
The Corps will not give up the battle or contemplate defeat. "Deltas rise and fall," observes Fred Chatry in the Mississippi Wheelhouse. "You have to constantly adapt the system to changes that occur." South Louisiana may be a house of cards, but as General Sands suggested, virtually no one would live there if it weren't for the Corps. There's no going back, as Gagliano says - not without walking away. And without struggle there will be no retreat. Army engineers did not choose this fight. When it started, they were still in France. The dykes, circular dams, spillways and flood channels that overhang and sway from the Old River are here because, against all odds, people wanted them to be. Or, as historian Albert Cowdrey puts it in the introduction to "Land's End," the Corps' official narrative of its efforts in southern Louisiana: "Society required art to survive in a region where nature was reasonably good, but a few ages would have required perfection. an unfinished work of creation."
The MISSISSIPPI tugit is now more than halfway across the Atchafalaya - beyond the upper basin farmland dyke and into the legendary swamp. However, the willows on either side of the river remain so dense that they block the view behind them and all we can see is the unobstructed waterway coming and going, half a mile wide, in filtered sunlight. and in the shadows of the clouds. A southwesterly breeze brought waves to the water. Wide on the starboard bow, it more than holds in moisture and heat. Despite this, most people, unsurprisingly, remain indoors, in the relaxed atmosphere of the wheelhouse, in the comfort of the lounge coat. A deck of cards appears and a showboat-themed boure game unfolds between several civilian millionaires - Ed Kyle of the Morgan City Harbor & Terminal District tipping the Pontchartrain Levee Board, the Lafourche Basin Levee Board, the Teche-Vermilion Freshwater District . Of course, Oliver Houck — a law professor, former general counsel of the National Wildlife Federation, whose mere presence signals the persistence of the environmental movement — is left out. He set up an eagle's nest on the windward upper deck. Tall and loosely built, Houck could be a middle-aged jumper who is still in shape to jump six feet. His still face is melancholy - perhaps due to the world his mind wishes him to have compared to the world as he sees it. What he sees now - at the center of the largest river marsh in North America that he and his battalions have worked to "rescue" for fifteen years - is a walled monotony of sky and water.
He is accompanied by General Sands and they chat casually, like two people who have come across too much time and paper. Sands notes again that on inspection tours like this one, he has become accustomed to being "slapped on the head and shoulders" by almost everyone he meets, not just the odd ecologist who dresses up as a freak.
Turning to the head, shoulders and chest, Houck says he has big reservations about Sands' uniform: all those brass baubles and stars, the castle bastions, the layered ribbons. He says Sands's attire is a form of intimidation, especially in an area of the country that has not lost respect for a military presence. Sands' attire is inappropriate in a civilian setting. "You are an uncharacteristic entity in the US military to play a political role like this," Houck tells him, and continues. He tells Sands that it reminds him of "a politician on the stump, walking around petting his constituency". He calls him "a political water czar".
Sands implicitly reminds Houck that without the US Army Corps of Engineers, there wouldn't be a stump, the constituency would be elsewhere, and Houck's neighborhood would be ten feet underground. He says: "Under the backdrop of nature, think of what would please you."
I feel compelled to include the Water Czar, he is not exactly the model Major General. If he bit his nails, he would break his teeth. I'm not trying to suggest that he lacks a general's presence, or expression, or poise. He's a little less martial than most English teachers. Exuberant and friendly, polite, attentive, he is the type who would rise quickly in a service industry. Make no mistake, he is a general. "Shall we go to the Four Seasons? Nice little place for lunch," he said one day in Vicksburg, and we drove to a large building downtown, where his car was parked outside the main entrance, next to a curb. bright yellow under several belligerent flags.parking signs.Stayed there for an hour while he ate his crab gumbo.
We approach a gap in the bank of the Atchafalaya on the right, where willows open to reveal a network of streams. Houck complained that the former Cajun swamp life of the Atchafalaya Basin has disappeared now, and for many years to come, as a result of water volumes concentrated in the flood channel and regulations prohibiting people from entering the Life dikes. “This single piece of pipe,” he says of Atchafalaya, “is the last great swamp in the world andAlsothe largest flood canal in the world - all to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans. attached. "How I love them," says Houck, a Sunset School conservationist with legal skills combined with the power of his emotions. he informs General Sands, "That's the point."
The General absorbs the scene without comment. We look in silence at the trees that are in the water and in narrow passages that disappear between them. You draw me into my own thoughts. I went there for the first time in 1980 - that is, the Atchafalaya Swamp, far from the dams of the flood channels and miles from the river. There were four of us in canoes. The guide was Charles Fryling, professor of landscaping at Louisiana State University, who plays Oliver Houck's Romulus to Remus among environmentalists in the Eighteenth State. Fryling is a tall man with a broad forehead, his hair falling straight into his eyes, without the slightest indication that a comb or brush has ever been invited into the wild. When he moved into his home on the outskirts of Baton Rouge in 1973, it sat on soft green lawns in a neighborhood of contemporary ranches, each with a soft green lawn. Fryling's Yard is now a rugged green forest, its eucalyptus trees, vines, pepper vines, wicker vines, hackberries, passion fruit and climbing ferns are a showcase of natural succession. In Fryling's words, "It's better than mowing the lawn." The trees are ten meters tall.
Fryling is dubbed into a slow country movie that could land him a movie job. He would be Li'l Abner or Candide at Fort Dix - the soldier who slowly shows up through basic training and dies on an intelligence mission twenty-five miles behind enemy lines. He is a graduate of the famous Forestry School at the State University of New York (Syracuse), is a Harvard graduate and – to continue the climb – knows how to get from here to there in the swamp. This is a remarkable achievement on seven hundred thousand acres that change so much and so often that most of them are impossible to map. Fryling understands the little bayous. Sometimes they go one way, sometimes the other. The water contains sediment or is clear. “You see, the water is clearer. Is coming. He descends from Bayou Pigeon.
If you ask him what something is, he knows. It's green hawthorn. It is deciduous holly. It's private water. It's water elm. It's a water moccasin - over there on the branch of that water oak. The moccasin does not move. A moccasin never falters. Dragonflies land on the rails. At Atchafalaya, dragonflies are known as the snake doctor. The canoes leave the open bay, enter the forest and glide between the trunks of the cypresses under the arrowhead feathered crowns. “The young cypress trees take a few years on dry land to start, but we send so much water through the Atchafalaya that the young ones cannot start. Therefore, existing cypress trees are not a renewable resource, as trees are generally considered a renewable resource. We have to protect them to have them.”
Being in the Atchafalaya means flying under the trees under the blue herons that fly silently, seeing the crested woodpecker, hoping to see an ivory bill, hearing the protonotary warbler. The barred owl has a guttural voice like that of a dog. It seems to growl, "Who's cooking for you? Who's cooking for you guys?" The barred owl, looking from a branch straight at the canoes, appears to be a camouflaged parrot. In the Longtown Choctaw language, "Hacha Falaia" means "Long River". (The words are reversed in translation.) Since my first travels with Fryling, these undulating syllables symbolize for me the two-sided extensions of the phrase "mastery of nature." Atchafalaya. The word will now come to mind more or less as an echo of every struggle against the forces of nature - heroic or venal, reckless or well-advised - when men pledge to fight the land to take what is not given, the destroyers to enemy route to besiege the base of the iVlt. Olympus demands and expects the surrender of the gods. The Atchafalaya - this seemingly most natural of all natural worlds, this Anhinga swamp, night bear swamp - is walled in like a zoo. It is totally dependent on the US Army Corps of Engineers, whose decisions in Old River can cut it or fill it with water and slime. Fryling gave me a green and white sticker that said "ATCHAFALAYA". I stuck it in my car window. It has been there for many years and has caused motorists to stop near the New Jersey Turnpike and crowd my lane while looking at a word meaning collision.
Recently, in Atchafalaya, we met a sport fisherman on a boat called the Mon Ark. "There's a lot of land out there right now," he said. He not only meant that the wet parts were down, but also that the dry parts were rising. In Atchafalaya, the earth comes and goes, but more comes than goes. As the overflow swamp of the only remaining tributary in the delta - the only place beyond the mouth of the Mississippi where mud can enter - the Atchafalaya settles. From a light aircraft at 150 m (500 ft) this is particularly evident as the sun's reflection breaks through the trees and casts light out of the water. The reflection disappears as it cuts through the accumulating earth. When land is acquired on the shore of a lake or bay, the new land belongs to the owner of the shore. If it grows like an island, it belongs to the state - a situation that Gilbert Sullivan would certainly inform Sullivan about. About 50,000 acres are caught up in this tug of war. Wet and dry, three-quarters of Atchafalaya Marshland is privately owned. Almost all homeowners are less interested in the swamp than what might be underneath. Conservationists, the Corps, landowners and recreational enthusiasts have reached a compromise where all parties get what they want: flood channel, fish passage, oil field, Eden. Five hundred feet up, the world below is swamp green as far as the eye can see. However, the fact is that the eye cannot see very far. The largest river marsh in North America is seventeen miles wide and sixty miles long between its retaining dikes. That's about half of what it was when it started in Mississippi and went all the way to Bayou Teche.
The pool's old life is not over yet. It is true that moss is no longer collected to fill furniture, it is true that the great virgin cypresses have disappeared. Its stumps on display stand like huts on the water. Since the early 1800's, Cajuns have made their living and earned their livelihood in the swamp. Their supplies floated and migrated between them from camp to camp. It's true that everything is gone, and the Cajuns live off the dikes, but they and others - usually singly or in pairs - go out into the swamp and extract twenty-five million dollars' worth of protein from the water in any given year. Fish alone can average a thousand pounds per acre, and that's "more fish than any other natural water system in the United States," according to Fryling—two and a half times more productive than the Everglades. However, fish do not speak compared to crayfish.
I know a crab fisherman named Mike Bourque who lives in Catahoula. I remember as if he were today taking his lines with him. "Watch your hands. Don't put them over the side of the boat. Why crush them," he said as we pulled out of Graveburg Bay and headed into the trees. His boat was not a canoe, and the object on the stern was not an oar. It was a sailor with fifty horses, enough to take off if the boat had wings. Bourque's brother-in-law was with us. In French, Bourque told him that he was unbalanced and shifting in the boat. Then he addressed me in English and said, "Careful, I have to jump over that log." Ahead of us, half hidden by water hyacinths, was an impressive floating log about half a meter in solid diameter. penetrating aluminum. The boat was about seventeen feet long. Brother-in-law Dave Soileau called it a bateau. Bourque called it a skiff. "French and English—we mix," he said. He often works alone and talks to himself a lot: "When I speak alone, I speak in French. I know other fishermen, ninety percent of the time we speak French.” If you don't know them, you know where they live because each city has its own accent.
Like everyone else, he calls hyacinths water lilies. This densely growing plant - an aquatic kudzu, exotic to the East - went on to ravage the southern waters, spreading like a nuclear winter through the swamps and extinguishing many forms of life. Not so in Atchafalaya, where lilies are good for lobsters. The young feed on things clinging to the roots. Water hyacinths grow three to four meters tall on heavy stems, so it takes a lot of strength to push them. "You will never see a fisherman with an engine of less than 50 hp."
Bourque moved the boat from tree to tree as if he were snowshoeing and pouring buckets of sap into a sugar bush. Crayfish cages were wire pads with holes at one end. Bourque hauled them out of the water by ropes tied to trees and dumped the crayfish into what appeared to be a roaster, which was hinged to the side of the boat. He calls it the valley. Open on the inside, it forms a kind of ramp that the crayfish crawl down until they fall into a bucket. Dead baitfish, dead crayfish, and other debris are left in the trough, and the critters rummage through what's discarded. Snakes are thrown away. Some of the baits used have less residual meat than the skeletons raised by white-gloved waiters. Larger crayfish weigh a quarter of a pound and are nine inches long with larger claws. When the bucket is full, the lobsters seem to boil as they move."Fine. Fine. Where's the bag?said Bourque, and Soileau handed him a plastic canvas bag. Each bag contained forty pounds and the bags began to pile up. The lobsters lay still. However, when a bag was moved or even touched, the commotion inside sounded like heavy rain.
The boat climbed onto another log. The engine cavitated. Like an elephant, we break through the undergrowth. Bourque followed what he called the driftwood line, where a small change in depth caused the driftwood to be left behind. To him, the swamp's topography was as distinct and varied as the neighborhoods of one city to another person - those underworlds from Atchafalaya, through Bayou Graveburg, to Red Eye Swamp. "That line used to go back there, but I moved it to the front," he said in a spot that looked too redundant to have a back or front. Colored ribbons, which he called flags, helped distinguish the trees from the fishermen, but he could run his lines without them and cover his four hundred cages. He was doing about sixty an hour. Soileau used a grain spoon to spoon dead alewiens and pressed Acadiana Choice Crawfish Bait pellets into each empty cage, and Bourque returned them to the water. Bourque urged Soileau, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, to leave the government and work for him. Soileau said, "For ten dollars a day?"
Bourque said: "Good future. No benefits.”
We were in a coulee which is like a swamp but deeper and with muddy mud at the bottom. A cage emerged containing seventy crabs, all dead. The cage had sunk deep into the earth, where the creatures died in an anoxic sludge. You played yourself. The cage should lightly touch the ground with the closed end slightly raised.
Then Bourque pulled out an empty cage. "Someone helped me," he noted, adding that he occasionally encountered a thief about to steal one of his cages.
Soileau said, "There's only one thing to do. Go straight to him, board his ship and start rapping.
Theft increased in direct proportion to unemployment. The oil companies owned this part of the swamp. In fact, fishermen were arrested for trespassing. Fryling's wife, Doris Falkenheiner, defends her in court. Now there are so many fishermen working in the water-rich forest that there is a plastic strap hanging from almost every tree. Fishermen say they need to bring their own trees.
We found another tree trunk. We run between a cypress and your knees. "We're climbing the ridge," Bourque said, referring to a subtle, unseen feature of the marsh floor. A male white crayfish came out of a cage. (The male has longer arms.) Crayfish are red, white, or blue. White people like mountain sand. Blue ones are rare. Bourque sees less than twenty a year. Now he was reaching out into the water for a cage that had been cut from its line by another fisherman's engine.
"Touch her?"Soileau asked.
Bourque replied, "Yes". So he said"Ah, that's good,"when he retrieved the cage.
"Are you all hungry?" Bourque asked.
"I live with hunger," Soileau said.
Bourque cut the engine and we stopped for lunch: ham sandwiches, Royal Crown, Mr. Porker. It was half past six in the morning.
We got up around two-thirty and drove down the embankment at four in Bourque's pickup, the boat behind us. Soileau noted that dykes are like cancer because they have to keep growing as they sink into the swamp. After twenty-five miles, we descended a ramp to a dock where forty-one pickup trucks beat us to it. About five thousand people fish the swamp for crayfish, netting twenty-three million pounds a year.
Now, at noon, when the morning sun began to pierce the trees, we saw a lovely scene, with tupelo and cypress rising out of the water, and pollen in the water like pale green silk. "The best months are Epp Rill and May," said Bourque. “The water can rise sometimes in October. I am going to try." He wore mirrored sunglasses, a soft button-down hat, white rubber boots, and a yellow rubber jumpsuit with slits in the crotch. He was of medium height, blond, with fine features, sandy hair around his ears and a big curl down his back, like a crashing wave. His flat mustache looked French. He attended St. Martinville High School, as did Soileau, who married the youngest of Bourque's six sisters. In large letters below the windows of a drug store in St. Martinville, a sign says:"Sidney Dupois Pharmacist Serving His Family's Health."Teche News, which is published on the street, has a regular column headlined "THINK DONC!!" and it contains marriage notices and obituaries for people with names like Boudreau, Tesreau, Landreaux, Passeau, Bordagaray, Lajoie, Fournier, Angelle, and Guidry. Bourque was the youngest in his family and the only male sibling. He explains that Cajuns keep going until they get a man, and that's where the Bourques stopped.
Soileau passed the pig skins on. Bourque chewed them until they were crunchy. "Crayfish arecrayfishin French,' he said. "We call them crayfish."
I mentioned itcrayfishare prized by chefs in France.
Soileau said, "I hear you only get three or four."
Bourque had a recipe nouveaux-cuisiniers may not have heard of. "Saute the onion in butter, then add the head fat for 10 or 15 minutes, then add the meat for a few more minutes," he said. "Salt. Cayenne pepper. Onion hints. What makes the Étouffée is the fat. Some people put a little roux in it. Crayfish etouffée: the Cajun quenelle de brochet. The meat is ground, but not all the way through. texture. On Easter Sunday morning, the Bourques make a crayfish fritter in Catahoula. At least that's what I thought they said until I saw what they did. They cooked a hundred kilos of crayfish. They ate a crimson mountain of condensed lobster.
Now we were walking on Bayou Eugene, which Soileau and Bourque lyrically pronounced in three syllables - "by yooz yen". We found a beaver on a floating log. This was not the beast that founded a nation, the watchful and agile bludger of the boreal seas. This was a Louisiana beaver - huge, half-asleep, lying down like a walrus, a bunch of tan fur with nothing to do but eat. Nothing needed to be contained here. The Corps of Engineers would take care of that. The beaver falls from the trees just to eat the bark. There is no mandate to practice conservation if you are the one being conserved. "A willow branch eaten by a beaver is as smooth as if it had been sanded," observed Soileau. "There is nothing more beautiful than a willow branch being eaten by a beaver." Nutria also lives in the swamp. Bourque said he only sees four or five alligators a year. A friend of his lost a finger in a cottonmouth. "He walked between dense lilies, very tall lilies, to make a road for his pirogue. The snake bit his finger through a glove." A crane fluttered among the cypress tree tops. Bourque called it disgustingwhySoileau called it the yellow crested night heron. Bourque said: "Big beakIt's here for the same reason we are: to catch crayfish." A blueberry crayfish came onto the boat from a cage at the bottom of Red Eye Swamp.
Further down the trap, Bourque said, "Crayfish are hard to understand. When it's muddy, they're hungrier. The water isn't muddy enough here." There was a time when this was a fact of nature. Now, of course, he blamed the Corps. "I would like more water," he continued. "Often they have much more in Mississippi than they can use. They say that they give us thirty percent. We don't know if that's true.”
I told him I had seen a count at Old River Control that said 31.1% had gone down Atchafalaya the day before.
"I'd like to see that paper when the river starts to go down," Bourque replied. "I don't see us getting thirty percent unless there's a lot of water. When they close the floodgates, it starts to sink pretty quickly."
I mentioned the Mississippi tug and her low-tide inspection trip from Atchafalaya and asked if he had already gone aboard to complain.
"I never heard of it until you just mentioned it," he said. “They know we want more water. You don't have to ask."
I remember Rabalais saying, "After they built the structure and started stabilizing that water and so on, it was mainly the people of the Atchafalaya basin who complained - all their crayfish fishermen and so on. They claimed that they weren't getting enough water, but over the years they've learned to live with it and they catch, I'd say, as many crayfish now as they did then."
And Peck Oubre, the lock mechanic, asked Rabalais: "Before they put in the Old River Lock and the control structure, what did people talk about when the water came up and passed through here? Did they complain about it?"
"No," said Rabalais. "They wouldn't complain because there was nothing they could do."
Bourque said farmers who raise crayfish in artificial ponds - a relatively new and fast-growing industry - are lobbying the body to keep the water in the Atchafalaya low to drive out swamp fishermen like him, whose ancestors were swamp fishermen. It's possible that the accusations he brought were based on pure suspicion, but now that the structures were stationed at Old River and the Corps had assumed responsibility for Latitude River, suspicion was another force in their control tested.
As we walked back to the landing site, Bourque surprisingly commented, “Good thing we have the dams. Before the dams, lobsters were everywhere.”
For bait, gas and such, the day's fare was seventy-five dollars. At the boat dock, Bourque sold the crayfish for three hundred and sixty. The buyer was Michael Williams, a young man from New Iberia with a head of Etruscan hair. He described himself as a poet and said: “There is no market for poetry anymore. The days of the romantic poets are over. It's how it used to be.” So he also writes country and western lyrics. He recited one that began, "Oh, it's hard to write a love song / When you've never been in love." He had with him a pit bull named Demon. Demon entered the water and gripped the waves. He tried to bite the waves from the motorboat.
I WILL FROMmy memories standing on the parapet, enchanted by the impenetrable vegetation. No part of the scenes beyond is felt or felt from the deck of the Mississippi as the tug passes between the willow curtains and straight through the forked swamp. The others continue talking, arguing. It is observed that if the Mississippi were to shift into the Atchafalaya, the entire basin would fill with sediment and become a hardwood forest in the lowlands. "When nature changes, man changes," says Oliver Houck. The petrochemical industry would also move into the basin, rebuilding in Bayou Eugene and extruding plastics in Red Eye Swamp. There are people in Morgan City who imagine another Ruhr valley in Atchafalaya. Morgan City would be the new New Orleans.
New New Orleans—seventeen miles from the Gulf—is not far from us now. The landscape changes to coastal marshes. Once at the bottom, I pay a cautious visit to the card game in the lounge. The Pontchartrain Dyke Board draws three, Teche-Vermilion needs two. Ed Kyle of Morgan City, whose pocketbook is familiar with pictures of American currency most people have never seen in their lives and don't even know exists, tosses a dollar into the pot. In the middle of the table, the greenbacks reach the high point.
Now, through the panoramic windows at the front of the room, we have our destination in sight: Morgan City, the Cajun Carcassonne - a very small city behind a very high wall. A railway bridge and two road bridges span the Atchafalaya, appearing to touch gently on either side as if they were landing on water lilies. The high tide level in Morgan City is one meter above sea level. An earth embankment protected the city until 1937. It was followed by concrete walls six and eight feet high. As the floods increased and the Atchafalaya became the Mississippi's only tributary, sandbags and wooden baffles were hastily stacked on the eight-foot-high walls. Since it is the intent of the Corps that fifty percent of a projected flood should go down the Atchafalaya, and since Morgan City is situated on a small, flat island situated directly in the path of the projected flood, the Corps constructed the present wall twenty-two feet high. Its behavior is so majestic and impressive that it attracts tourists. It's a wall that imagines water—a layer of water at least twenty feet thick between Morgan City and the horizon. The breakwater, as it is called, rises to the edge of the palm trees that line the back. From the approaching tug, we see a church steeple, a flagpole, a water tower, but not the low avenues or deeply shaded streets of the city. Damocles wouldn't be so lonely if he lived in Morgan City. In inverse proportion to the size of the dam, the dam indicates a vulnerability that is hard to find this far from a volcano.
Water approaches Morgan City from all sides. The Atchafalaya River and its surrounding flood channel enter from the north and pass along the western edge of the city. The dyke forms part of the eastern dyke of the flood channel. When there is heavy local rainfall, as was the case at the time of the Great Flood of 1973, the water was kept out of the flood path by the 75 mile east facing dike - water that used to flow into the swamp and river when the basin it was still under Nature's control - puddles against the dam, caroms towards the Gulf and attacks on Morgan City from the rear. The bridge ends at Avoca Island, five or six miles to the south. Sometimes the floodwater from Atchafalaya is so high that it bypasses the end of the bridge and returns to Morgan City. Hurricanes also bring flooding from that direction, pouring out of the Gulf like tidal waves.
Professor Kazmann of LSU said, "You can't sell Morgan City, or I would." Morgan City doesn't need a flood designed to end its days. The design tide in Morgan City is one and a half million cubic feet per second. LeRoy Dugas of Old River once told me, “The Old River Control Structures can pass 750,000 cubic feet per second and the Morganza Spillway can pass 600. I made Morgan City gasp." The people of Morgan City are not easily intimidated. They would tell Professor Kazmann to go back to his college and Dugie to close some gates. Mayor Cedric LaFleur says, "I feel safe. I feel safe. We "will not be taken away." aquariums. The Corps, of course, built Morgan City's great city wall and decorated it with bas-reliefs of shrimp boats and oil rigs - successive emblems of the Morgan City booms. All are grateful that Morgan City - in its unusual setting - is dated as dependent on the Corps of Engineers much as a space platform would depend on Mission Control Morgan City's fate is written in Old River Everything that happens there is for the relevant city .
As the tug passes under the second bridge and turns into a berth below the breakwater, I ask General Sands what kind of complaints he most often gets when he comes here. He says, "The Corps of Engineers is not doing enough to protect Morgan City from disaster."
The audience is at nine the next morning, aboard the Mississippi, in the completely renovated saloon. Where Teche-Vermilion took pots, the stage is now set for Billy Mitchell's court-martial. In front of several flags flying, the three generals and two civilian members of the Mississippi River Commission are seated at a large formal table, with General Sands in the center. A colonel is master of ceremonies, three other colonels sit in the front row. This seems an unlikely place for Clifton Aucoin to present his petitions, but here he is before them - a man in jeans and an open shirt, whose comments suggest he has spent many days of his life in waist-deep water. "My name is Clifton Aucoin," he testifies. "Few people pronounce it correctly, so don't feel bad about it." He tells the committee that he once tied a boat to the handle of his front door. "We people in the flood area feel neglected," he continues. “As far as we know, nothing has been fixed. The Atchafalaya water just comes around Bayou Chene, it's coming straight for us backlanders... We feel it's just another big tide waiting to hit us if nothing is done about it." changes in coverage that are no longer the result of nature, but are now clearly under the control of the Body.
The flight attendants listen to Cedric LaFleur, a lean man with curly hair and dark, quick eyes. LaFleur says it's "a terrible relief" to have the dike completed and suggests the Corps stop investigating the Avoca Island dike and extend it several kilometers south to prevent Atchafalaya floodwaters from rising, walk over the top of the dam and back to town. The parish of Terrebonne, to the east of the proposed expansion, complained to the Corps that an expanded dike would draw silt from the Terrebonne marshes, thereby destroying the marshes. The survival of one community conflicts with the survival of another, and each appeals to the Corps.
You hear Mark Denham from St Mary Parish: 'Thank you all for coming. We really consider it a tremendous benefit to our area that the Corps is present in our area in terms of flood protection and economic development as well."
You hear Jesse Fontenot, Curtis Patterson, Gerald Dyson - Chambers of Commerce, dams, state government. And as they inevitably do in Morgan City, they listen to Doc Brownell. He advances slowly, slightly bent over, seventy years old. This man has already participated in boxing matches. There's a hint of a smile on his face. He also thanks the Commission. "Always a pleasure to see you coming here. And then he practically tells the Corps to mobilize their action and lengthen the levee. Doc Brownell was mayor of Morgan City for thirty-two and a half years. LaFleur was described as his clone. In 1973, when the water flowed at the end of the dam and Bayou Chene came up again, Brownell dumped a 1,500-ton barge into the bayou without a permit. The barge acted as a dam, holding back the water long enough for the people to build their defenses and save the city "The nightmare of '73 is still with us," Brownell reminds the commission. "We live in a state of apprehension; We thrive on the vagaries of the weather in over forty-two percent of the United States... We live with it twenty-four hours a day." He praises the beauty of the new dam, but notes that its extraordinary height is an unequivocal message of the Corps for the People of Morgan City "We can expect a lot more water. That makes us very concerned. We need to strengthen our defense."
Brownell, who went into medicine because of the decline of the logging business, became something of a Bayou Schweitzer, giving birth in the swamps and operating twelve to fourteen hours a day in an operating room with no air conditioning. Among his closest companions was an alligator named Old Bull, who lived with the Brownell family for thirty-five years. Old Bull died in 1982 and is now housed in a glass-walled mahogany box — a transparent coffin, in fact — that seems almost alive amidst simulated hyacinths, irises and moss in Brownell's living room. Old Bull is ten and a half feet long end to end. Beside the Old Bull is a brass plinth and above it is an upholstered bar with a beer tap, soda siphon and a generous supply of bottles. Brownell took Charlie Fryling and me on a spring day to admire Old Bull and, through photographs, show us the predicament of Morgan City. What struck me most when he spoke was his apparent and inherent belief that a community can have a right to exist - to grow, expand and prosper - in the midst of one of the most flooded floodplains in the world. However, the natural floodplain is also an artificial floodplain - concentrated and shaped - and its floods are correspondingly violent. In Morgan City it became impossible to separate the works of men from the periodic acts of God. “Now we have many restaurants and different types of facilities in places vulnerable to water,” said Brownell. “We need to develop at the level of the floods. It is the only place where we can develop. We still have to look for places where people can live. Now you can see on this map that we're in the middle of that flood trail... It's like a funnel with a spout, and we're at the end of that spout. We are in the concentration part of this. We have our homes, our families, our entire future in the floodplain. We have to live with these problems - and for me it should be something of a priority that people who live in these conditions twelve months a year have a kind of priority in terms of our future. It's the nation's problem and we are just the victims here of a lot of things that are being forced upon us, we lost the big live oaks in the park to the long lasting flood, a flood doesn't last for weeks here it happens in some of these places From north. Our floods last for months. The more circular dikes built in the north, the more water Morgan City will receive. As much as people protect themselves upstream, they are sending more water into Morgan City. When people dig canals to get water from their land, it flows into Morgan City. If you drown, you don't need water anymore."
Tarzan of the apes once jumped among the live oaks in the park. The first Tarzan movie was filmed in Morgan City. Atchafalaya Swamp was Tarzan's jungle. Costumed black extras pretended to be Africans.
Not far from Old Bull, another alligator head served as a lamp - with an open mouth and a light bulb stuck in its throat. Stuffed owls and hawks hung from the walls, and Canada geese flew through the air. There were heads of deer, of black bears from the Atchafalaya swamp. Brownell said his father killed six bears shortly before he died. There was a stuffed tarpon head the size of a horse's head. The tarpon was caught in the Atchafalaya River near Morgan City before the river, growing in volume and strength, pushed the salt water back. Where the river was a hundred feet deep, there are now islands. Of course, as the Atchafalaya grew, more and more sediments came up, stopping where they meet standing water. Aside from the mouth of the Mississippi, this is the only place in Louisiana where a new coastline is forming. Large parts of the former Atchafalaya Bay have become dry plains. When the tide went out in 1973, the ground rose to the surface. Whole islands appeared at once. The bay was clogged. Brownell says the river built a dam there. A geologist would call it a delta.
Charles Morgan, a shipper in New Orleans in the 1850s and 1960s, was so angered by New Orleans taxes, New Orleans port fees, and New Orleans' tangle of banks that he moved his operations to Atchafalaya and built a competing city . It seems unlikely that he knew that Mississippi wanted to follow him. Morgan City lived on shipping, on oysters. When the great cypresses were felled in the Atchafalaya Swamp, Morgan City became the center of the cypress industry in the United States: countless sawmills, hundreds of schooners in port. Brownell's great-grandfather owned a sawmill. In the 1930s, Captain Ted Anderson, a Florida fisherman, was blown off course by a storm and stranded in Morgan City. In the hold of his boat were shrimp of a size unheard of in Morgan City - big as croissants from the other shore. They were repulsive and nobody wanted them at first, but these deep gulf jumbos soon gave Morgan City the best shrimp fleet in the world. As the Atchafalaya River pushed back the salt water, it pushed the shrimp ponds out of the swamps. The shrimp were caught off the west coast and made their way to Texas, where much of the business is today. Cypress's growth was too slow to keep up with the logging industry, so the logging industry collapsed. The next boom was in oil. The large offshore towers come from the swamps around Morgan City. They are built sideways and dominate the skyline like the skeletons of trapezoidal zeppelins. Of the twelve hundred and sixty-three permanent platforms that now lie in the Gulf on the continental shelf, eighty-eight percent are off Louisiana.
In other words, the people of Morgan City are used to taking nature as it comes. Cindy Thibodaux, the town archivist—a heavyset young poet with blue eyes and a fervent way of speaking—told me one day, "When you're fishing in the bayou, you're out in nature, surrounded by the oil industry." She has written a poem about the oil industry and nature from an alligator's perspective.
NOT PRESENTfrom the tugboat stands as the Pontchartrain Levee district presents its needs and the state of Louisiana its concerns - while the discussion touches on the multiple appeals of the entire Delta Plain rather than the growth of the ends of the great levee system just below Morgan City , but the Mississippi going down from Bohemia to Baptiste Collette - my mind can't help but go back to Old River, where every part of this story sort of began and could have ended. Near the mouth of the Old River Control catchment channels, the Corps maintains another tug, smaller than the Mississippi but no less powerful - a vessel that operates 24 hours a day and has no white couches, floor-to-ceiling windows or blinds, whose name is Kent.
Kent is a picket boat. Defends the control of Rio Velho. With its square bow and jagged look, it looks like a piece of dock that came loose like a tooth and collapsed into the river. Kent's job is to catch, hold and support any ship in distress. If the barges break loose upriver and there isn't enough time to dock, Kent must divert them. Technically, it's a 25-metre-long steel twin-screw engine tug with two 900-horsepower diesel engines that can be started at the push of a button. (Compressed air makes this possible.) Costing two million dollars, it differs from most river tugs only in its unusual electronics—the condition and variety of its radar, the uses of its numerous computers. In addition to the onboard radar, two radar beams sweep the river from shore at stations four miles apart and anything reflected by those beams appears on a screen in Kent. If a towline is moving at current speed, an alarm will sound when the random speed indicates the header has no power. Kent can tell that from eight miles away.
Fifteen miles upriver, in April 1964, twenty barges full of ore were moored to the bank and abandoned. Eight of them managed to break free. There was no picket boat then. As a working valve, the Old River control structure was nine months old. As the ore-laden barges approached, they were pulled away from the Mississippi and sucked into the structure by the power of the Atchafalaya. One of them fell through the gates and sank to the underside. Three sank in front of the gates, effectively closing the structure. A normal barge is one hundred and ninety-five feet long. the water has accumulated. weeks passed. More often than not, the water level difference between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya sides was 35 feet, a critical number that caused damage and "threatened the integrity of the structure"—the Corps' way of saying it could have been destroyed.
It is now illegal to dock anything on any bank of the Mississippi within a twenty-mile radius upriver from buildings on the Old River. Any approaching ship must radio Kent and, as Dugas puts it, "tell him what he is, who he is and if he has any red flag products". And for ignorant river pilots and all inexperienced boaters there is a very large sign high up on the riverbank - the first three words in red:
DANGEROUS WARNING DRAW I FORMER RIVER CONTROL STRUCTURE OF MILEWEST BANK USA ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS NEW ORLEANS DISTRICT
Spring floods often bring the plate down.
It is difficult to overestimate the power of the undertow, since it originates from the Atchafalaya, which is now one of the twenty to thirty strongest rivers in the world in terms of flow. The Coast Guard once tried to place five warning buoys on the west side of the Mississippi River, but it couldn't keep them in place because the undertow was too strong. This menace to navigation might have been called the American Maelstrom — the modern Charybdis, the Corryvreckan — were it not for a far greater destructive force. In Dugie's words, "All the oil rigs on the right side of the river are in trouble."
One empty barge and three barges loaded with debris were sucked into the low sill in 1965. Two laden barges broke through the structure and sank on the Atchafalaya side. The other sank against the gates with no apparent damage, but it must have contributed to the turbulence that was already eroding the structure. After the great flood of 1973 and the severe weakening that accompanied it, there was a constant threat that if several loose barges blocked the river and the water level reached catastrophic proportions, there would be nothing to be done. A barge went through a flood outside the gates in 1974, but the structure survived.
People in Simmesport often refer to Old River Control as "the second locks". John Hughes, Kent's supervisor and one of its operators, is doing his best to correct them. "It's not a lock, it's a control structure," he says. And a Simmesport person says, "Well, we were born and raised here and we call it the second lock." Judging by the amount of traffic mistakenly drawn to the control structure, they have a point. A boat goes down the river, turns right and heads to Old River Control, thinking it's the Old River Navigation Lock. Usually the boat is small - a cabin cruiser or something - but the mistake was made by a tug with fifteen barges. The captain radioed the blockade of navigation and announced his arrival. The people at the lock replied that they had not seen him. He said, "I'm right here looking at you, I'm coming in." The error was corrected in time.
At 4:30 am 1982, thirty-nine barges departed 13 miles upriver. The whole complex just collapsed. Dugie remembers, "He was on a bend in the river. He couldn't maneuver the river. The picket boat was driving behind the barges. Five other captains joined their units and replaced four tugboats that came to the rescue." the picket boat had a lot of trouble trying to take 39 barges by itself," says Dugie. At 6am, near the entrance to the Old River Control inlet channel, the last barge was captured. Not one hit the goals. Two of the thirty-nine were Red flag barges loaded with oil. Later that year, a platform of fifteen ships traveling north in the dark came too close to the Old River Control, was blown off course and - its engines overwhelmed by the force of the water - crashed into the sand in the North side of inlet - mouth of canal At midnight 1983, a three-vessel jumbo tug lost power at Black Hawk Point, two miles above the structure. Picket caught it before it reached the canal.
The operator on this occasion was Gerald Gillis, whose broad, full face and long black hair gave him the appearance of an Elizabethan page after twenty-five years in Morgan City. He is one of eight men who work shifts in Kenttwo. One day he picked me up on the beat and ran upstream. He said the Mississippi current's speed ranges from about three knots at low tide to six knots in spring and eight knots at high tide. A derrick going downriver on this September day would average eight knots. To save fuel, the thirty-five large barge tugs like to crawl just ahead of the river speed and this confuses Kent because the tugs can be dead in the water. An example was coming our way now, called the Gale C, pushing thirty-five barges carrying grain and coal and lots of river life, Gillis heard over the radio. As the gigantic oil rig passed us - actually a mobile platform, eight thousand horsepower and a quarter of a mile in length, with its barges in seven rows of five - he said that the general rule for fueling such an undertaking on voyages Upstream is one gallon per horse per day.
Gillis turned on the sonar. We had come up the east side of the Mississippi and now it was turning against the current, heading for the cut edge of the west convex curve just above the structures of the Old River. As we crossed the Mississippi, the depth, sketched in pen on graph paper, continually decreased and continued to decrease as we approached the shore. We were just a few dives from shore when the depth hit a hundred feet. It was remarkable that the riverbed was 15 meters below sea level, more than 500 kilometers from the mouth of the river, but what surprised me was how deep it was so close to the west bank. It showed the digging power of a mighty river. The foundations of skyscrapers are rarely that deep. And this was the bend where the water drained into the Old River Control - a concrete armored bend where the Mississippi could erupt and flow into the Atchafalaya. Kent was so close to shore that there was no room to turn. Gillis backed away.
Twenty years earlier, a sloop that broke free and crumpled after sinking into the structure had its intake channel pulled up and left on the riverbank. The barge has not moved since, but the banks of the Mississippi - engulfed by torrential currents - had eroded to the west. The barge was now five hundred feet into the Mississippi.
General Sands, reflecting on these matters, once said, "The old river control structure was misplaced.
And Fred Bayley, its chief engineer, added, "That's right. It was done during the Eisenhower administration."
The Corps once attempted to barricade the inlet channel with a series of barges anchored in the river. Drift - as the large logs that drift down the river incessantly are called - piled against the anchor ropes until they accumulated enough to lift and break the ropes. As if drift wasn't enough of a problem, ice has been known to make an appearance as well. It might only happen once in twenty years, but in Louisiana it's ice cream.
The water attacking Old River Control is obviously continuous and works in different ways on both sides. In 1986, one of the eleven gates to the Low Sill structure was severely damaged by the incessantly raging river. Another gate lost its guide rail. When I asked Fred Smith, the district geologist, if he thought it inevitable that the Mississippi should change its channel to the west, he said, “Personally, I think so. Yup. However, this is not the position of the Body. I will try to keep it where it is for economic reasons. If the right circumstances come together (heavy rains, a large snow melt), there is a very certain possibility that the river will be diverted and flow through the Atchafalaya Basin. So far, we've managed to alleviate these issues."
A big thank you to Kent.
A skiff drives aft from Kent. Part of the bier's permanent equipment is a 15-foot bamboo pole. Kent is alert for anything that moves in the river, including catfish.
Copyright © 1989 de John McPhee