The Atchafalaya River basin fill with the overflow of half a continent’s worth of weather. I pore over Google Earth and the drainage maps from the Army Corps of Engineers. The maps meet my memory in some places but it’s a big state.
Old Pliny, rushing from his position of safety, down to his boat to observe Vesuvius erupting across the bay, this incident is too large to be called a mere catastrophe: we are learning. Kata-strophe: a downward turn, to overturn, trample, to end. We live on a dynamic planet: nothing has ended. This is change on a large scale.
At the end of his life, Da Vinci drew floods, eddies and obstacles in water. Water, he said, is the driving force of all nature. In time and with water, everything changes. To put your hand into a flowing stream is to touch the last of what has happened before and the first of what is to come.
The Great River
Great rivers do not merely fan out at their deltas. They jump their banks, flipping like a snake in a heron’s beak, back and forth, establishing new primary channels, leaving behind oxbow lakes and all the bayous as artifacts of their former courses. Hopeful cities and towns built beside the rivers are left behind, carved away in flood or their harbors silted up, abused by their faithless and remorseless river lovers, overwhelmed in the floods they bring, sustained by the soil they deposited.
Each town along the river’s way has a placard with a horizontal line marking the height of the flood water in some year gone by. The relationship with the river sours. The fearful towns are locked in a grudge match, a never-ending struggle of dredging and levee building. They hope and quarrel and pray the river’s nature can be tamed but it cannot. In time, New Orleans will be abandoned, joining Ostia Antica and the ancient cities along the coast of the Bohai Sea, left behind or washed away in the blonde silt of the Tiber and the Yellow River. Foolish towns think the river is theirs but they are the river’s, built upon its ephemeral shores.
The Strong Brown God
T.S. Eliot, born along the Mississippi in St. Louis, Missouri wrote in The Dry Salvages
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
People change, and smile: but the agony abides.
Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops,
The bitter apple, and the bite in the apple.
And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by, but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.
The brown torrent shooting through the Morganza Spillway came as far as Chautauqua County, New York State. It came from the Milk River and Glacier County Montana, through Saskatchewan. It came from the Minnesota River past where I work. It came from the storm water sewers of Salina, Kansas and Denver, from western Virginia and Casper, Wyoming, down the Ohio River, down the Missouri and from the headwaters of the Mississippi deep in a network of northern lakes. As it nears the Gulf of Mexico, the river deposits its freight of mud and sand, chemicals and processed sewage onto that alluvial plain. As it levels out, the river forms sandbars, sinusoidal curves, obeying Hack’s Law expressing the dependence of stream length on drainage area.
In time and with water, everything changes. The Great River delta has wriggled its way as far west as the Texas line. Were the Great River left alone, it would do so again, this time choosing the Atchafalaya for a while, forming natural levees along its banks, only to break them down and move again. It would be a land of fishermen and hunters, the Great River an ever moving fractal, finding its way to the sea, obeying the same rules which guide the rainwater on your flat windshield.
America's Achilles' Heel
As the treacherous and flood-prone Red River wriggles across Texas, it gathers into Lake Texoma and forms the north border of the state of Texas, twisting through Texarkana and Shreveport past Natchitoches and Alexandria.
Since 1860, the Great River has gradually pushed west at the 31st parallel into its distributary the Atchafalaya.
Once the Red River fed the Mississippi but the Atchafalaya River captured it in the 1940s. As the Red River becomes the Atchafalaya River the two rivers form the left vertical of a capital H: the Mississippi River forms the right vertical. In the 1960s, the Corps of Engineers cleaned up the old Old River to create two new Old Rivers. The Old River Control Structures form the horizontal bars connecting the two rivers: the Outflow Channel generates some hydro power and controls the highly-regulated level of the Atchafalaya. The Lower Old River locks raise and drop ships and barges as far as ten meters.
Thirty miles south from the Old River Control Structures as the crow flies, the Morganza Spillway is the failsafe for everything between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Down the route of the spillway, the Corps of Engineers warns everyone in writing the Morganza Spillway could be opened.
America's femoral artery is the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge. Chemical plants and refineries line its shores: Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Texaco, Exxon Mobil, B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina, we've stacked up every dirty industry imaginable down there. Below Baton Rouge, the Mississippi has become the American Ruhr. We're not merely saving a couple of cities, we're saving perhaps the densest concentration of American heavy industry still left on our shores.
In 1973, despite opening the Morganza Spillway, the Corps of Engineers damned near lost the Old River Control Structures. Two million cubic feet of water per second gouged great pits into the foundations. The entire structure, two hundred thousand tons of steel and concrete vibrated like a loaded freight train though a quick back of the envelope calculation says more mass was involved than four or five freight trains. An LSU hydrology professor who'd come up to observe the water cascading over its concrete falls fled in terror. When the water subsided, the Corps of Engineers opened the gates and pumped thousands more tons of concrete and bentonite below the foundations. For months, water roared down the Atchafalaya, only increasing its relative advantage to the Mississippi.
The Corps of Engineers consider the Old River Control Structures their number one priority, America's Achilles' Heel.
James Eads, perhaps the most influential of all the engineers who ever worked on the Mississippi, building the first bridge across it at St Louis and who travelled along its bottom in a submarine, said of his profession:
“If the profession of an engineer were not based upon exact science, I might tremble for the result, in view of the immensely of the interests dependent on my success. But every atom that moves onward in the river, from the moment it leaves its home among the crystal springs or mountain snows, throughout the fifteen hundred leagues of its devious pathway, until it is finally lost in the vast waters of the Gulf, is controlled by laws as fixed and certain as those which direct the majestic march of the heavenly spheres. Every phenomenon and apparent eccentricity of the river—its scouring and depositing action, its caving banks, the formation of the bars at its mouth, the effect of the waves and tides of the sea upon its currents and deposits—is controlled by law as immutable as the Creator, and the engineer need only to be insured that he does not ignore the existence of any of these laws, to feel positively certain of the results he aims at.”
For all Ead's genius and resourcefulness, the Great River exceeds our capacities as it exceeded his and all the fine engineers of the Corps of Engineers. In our urge to restrain the river, raising the levees, we've compounded the consequences of failure. The more we spend, the worse it gets. As with the Yellow River, the river of sorrow, the Mississippi is a depositary river, forming and breaking natural levees. Our man-made levees have raised the river and the land has subsided and the delta washes into the sea. Perversely, it's only at Morgan City where the delta is still growing into the sea. The sediments of the Mississippi that pass an increasingly fragile New Orleans now fall into the abyss.
I've travelled down Louisiana roads soon to be flooded. My heart's in my throat, knowing what's coming. Friends of mine will be displaced. The statue of Doc Brownell, mayor of Morgan City, will be under several meters of water. In 1987, John McPhee writing in the New Yorker wrote:
In 1973, when the water went around the end of the levee and came back up Bayou Chene, Brownell, without authority, sank a fifteen-hundred-ton barge in the bayou. The barge acted as a dam and held off the water long enough for the people to build up 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 live on the whims of the weather of over forty-two per cent of the United States. . . .We live with it twenty-four hours a day.” He praises the beauty of the new seawall but points out that to the people of Morgan City its extraordinary height is an unambiguous message from the Corps. “We can expect that much more water. It makes us very apprehensive. We have got to extend our defenses.”
C and I love Louisiana. She remembers Shreveport from her years in the Air Force, a teenage girl at Barksdale AFB, drinking and playing pool. It rained on Christmas Day. She observes zydeco and Cajun music remind her of the polkas she heard as a kid in Wisconsin, the plangent diatonic of the accordion, the essential country nature of the people. There was some swampland, but she never saw the Atchafalaya until I took her there.
Morgan City was where I planned to moor my boat. Upon reflection, it's a good thing I didn't buy it and continued planning to build my own. I'm at the other end of the river now. I've been to the only natural falls on the Mississippi at St. Joseph's, but there is another falls, a titanic ten meter fall at the Old River Control Structures, built of concrete and steel. The Atchafalaya will somehow survive this deluge. While the reporters ooh and ahh as water cascades out of the Morganza Spillway, my guts tighten, bracing for the slow motion catastrophe, soon to arrive thirty miles north at the Old River.
Noi tutti siamo esiliati
entro lo cornici di uno strano quadro.
Chi sa questo, viva da grande,
Gli altri sono insetti.
We are all exiles
within the boundaries of a bizarre picture frame.
He who understands this, lives large,
The others are insects.