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Mississippi River Flooding Reaching Historic Levels

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In one of the worst cases of flooding since the Great Depression, the bulging, swollen Mississippi River is overflowing in record proportions, blanketing thousands of square miles across Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, negatively impacting the environment, and causing billions of dollars in damage.


After weeks of intense rainfall, the water level is breaking records across Mississippi. In Natchez, Miss., the water now stands at 58.3 feet, shattering the 1937 watermark of 53.04 feet. And the National Weather Service says that the flooding is just getting started.

While residents scramble to reach higher ground, the rest of the country has focused on the economic and environmental impacts of this last round of severe weather, which comes in the wake the devastating tornadoes that swept the Southeast two weeks ago.

The water is flooding some of the most fertile areas in the country, so damages to agriculture alone could easily top $2 billion, according to estimates by economist John Michael Riley, a professor in the department of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University.

“Crop lost estimates are definitely around $800 million for Mississippi alone,” Riley said. To that $800 million, Riley added another $500 million in estimated losses in Arkansas, and several hundred million more caused by flooding in Louisiana, Missouri and farmland north of Memphis in Tennessee.

But agricultural losses could just be the tip of the iceberg.

“Homes and business are being damaged, and there are all the industries that feed into agriculture. There are going to be far reaching losses,” Riley said. “So $2 billion is probably just a starting point in terms of overall, everything put together.”

River casinos in Mississippi are also being closed, which could cost the state $12 million a month in state and local tax revenue, according to Jon Moen, chair of the economics department at the University of Mississippi.

While it is too early to estimate the economic impact of structural losses, Sally Williams from the Mississippi Development Authority said the overall cost will depend heavily on whether the levees ultimately hold.

“It totally depends on what areas might be affected,” Williams said. “The levees could breach and we could have more flooding as a result of that, but the levees haven’t been breached yet.” Even with the majority of the levees intact, about 1,300 homes in Memphis were affected, and between 600-800 homes in Mississippi may be at risk, said Moen.

The total damages of the Mississippi flood of 1927, known simply as the “Great Flood”, cost a total of $230 million -- the equivalent of $2.8 billion today -- although there was far less infrastructure and agriculture in place at the time.

In anticipation of increased flooding, health officials are quick to emphasize the obvious, but important, point: Stay away from the water for environmental reasons.

The river is slowly spreading across millions of acres of farmlands that contain pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals. The sheer amount of water is diluting the concentration of these toxic chemicals, but the Mississippi State Department of Health still note that the water could carry disease, especially tetanus.

Increased levels of E. coli are also of concern, because the bacteria can be an indicator for harmful pathogens that may cause illness. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is monitoring the levels weekly. So far, the agency has found that the state’s lakes do not have dangerously elevated concentrations of E. coli, except in Cypress Creek, which has a history of pollution.

The long-term environmental impacts of the flooding are more unpredictable, both for the region and its citizens. The stream of river water pouring into the Gulf of Mexico is filled with nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants, and scientists are concerned that the increased concentration of these mineral nutrients in the Gulf could contribute to the growing ecological disturbance known as “the dead zone.”

The dead zone is a lifeless band of ocean water off the coast, larger than the state of Massachusetts, in which shrimp and fish are unable to survive due to the lack of available oxygen in the water. Scientists expect that historic amounts of water cascading down the Mississippi this spring could lead to one of the largest-ever dead zones this summer, which could stretch the already massive area all the way to the Texas coast.

Donald Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said the increased size of the dead zone was "clearly a record."

Because the dead zone leaves a vast swath of the water off the Louisiana coast uninhabitable for fish and other sea life, it has a direct impact on local fisheries. Shrimpers are hit hard in particular, because the dead zone has the largest effect on bottom feeders like shrimp and other crustaceans.

“The shrimpers have already had a hard time because of the oil spill last year,” said Eugene Turner, professor at the Coastal Ecology Institute at Louisiana State University. As the size of the dead zone increases, Turner projects that shrimpers will need to travel farther to find the sea life, meaning sustaining higher fuel costs.

“They’re on a marginal economic lifestyle as it is,” he said. “And now they’re getting hammered.”

Yet the long-term effects aren’t all negative, scientists stress. Historically, the region has relied on flooding to replenish the soil with nutrient-rich sediment.

“In muddy delta systems, mud is a good thing,” said Boesch. The installation of levees decreased the amount of flooding, which in turn meant the soil was replenished less frequently.

“The whole region is sinking, and if it doesn’t get nourishment it’ll dry out and break off, which is what’s happening,” Boesch said. “So, yes, flooding can muck up people’s houses, but it’s actually necessary and important.”

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HuffPost's Laura Gottesdiener reports:

This past Saturday, the Army Corps of Engineers both opened the Morganza Spillway—a massive apparatus built in the 1920s that has stayed closed for nearly 40 years—and celebrated the success of its new Facebook initiative, Operation Watershed.

The former event was precipitated by a measurement of 1.5 million cubic feet per second, the calculation of how fast the river needed to flow to necessitate opening the spillway. The later operation was measured in newer metrics: likes, newsfeed impressions and unique page views.

Conversion tables aside, both operations seem to be a success. The New York Times reported on Monday that the pressure on levees downstream of the Morganza has slackened. Meanwhile, the 18,000 news feed impressions that the Army Corps of Engineers’ Facebook page garnered on Saturday, March 14, the day the Morganza was opened, suggests that the Corps’ venture into social media is carrying out its own diversion operation: orienting people attention away from rumors and speculation and towards accurate, government-issued information.

"It’s been a success," said Army Corps spokesman and one of the Facebook page managers Steve Rochette. "We’re providing real-time information, photos and videos on the operations. They’re [the users] are getting the information first and they know that it’s accurate because it’s an official page," he said.

The Army Corps venture into providing "real-time information, photos and videos" also diverts attention away from major news outlets, another indication of a shift in the way news is disseminated and consumed. Yet Rochette said the Corps isn't attempting to usurp the media and that the agency is still issuing its slew of press releases.

Page "Operation Watershed" was inspired by a similar Facebook initiative by the Corps in late April, when the agency created a separate page before detonating the Birds Point levee in near Cairo, Ill., to divert water away from the Mississippi. That page had nearly 36,000 monthly users, said Rochette, a level of popularity that prompted the Corps to use this tactic again for the Morganza event.

Nearly 9,000 people currently "like" Operation Watershed’s page—a low number for social media but a high one given these users "like" an initiative to flood thousands of square miles of Southeast Louisiana. In addition to Corps news updates, the page acts as a forum for residents to applaud or deride the Corps’ decision, often depending on where one lives.

"THANK EACH OF YOU FOR YOUR COLLECTIVE WORK FOR OUR SAFETY. GOD BLESS," wrote one woman whose page is private but who likely lives downstream of the Mississippi.

Everyone doesn’t share her enthusiasm for the decision that Major Gen. Michael Walsh categorized as "grave." Yet most users appear appreciative of information provided, regardless of how it will affect their communities.

"Thank you for all the graphs, charts and maps," wrote one user who identified himself as a "Morgan City boy." "Very good information & for keeping the public updated as much as possible!!"

His post was on Friday. By Monday, his city was in flood-fighting mode, building a floodwall, laying sandbags and sinking a several-hundred-foot-long barge into the channel to block the coming water, said Army Corps Spokesman Bob Anderson. Some parts of Morgan City are still expected to get up to five feet of standing water, but estimates grow lower each day, especially due to the preparations.

"There’s some tough folks down there," said Anderson. "They’re not just going to get flooded; they’re going to fight it."

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HuffPost's Chris Kirkham reports:

PORT GIBSON, Miss. -- Little Bayou Pierre snakes through this tiny town of antebellum mansions and crumbling, vine-covered shacks.

But for nearly two weeks now, the bayou has been flowing the wrong way. Amid intense backward pressure from the Mississippi River, Little Bayou Pierre has outgrown its name -- and overflowed its banks -- slowly submerging parts of this town.

This tributary to the Mississippi River is usually little more than a small stream with sandy shoals, but in the past few days the bayou has already swallowed the home across the street from Debra Foster. And on Monday afternoon the water was slowly making its way uphill on Shipp Street and into Foster's yard. She and her family were leaving to stay with a friend. They placed sandbags in the doorway as a last-ditch effort to prevent flooding.

"Good luck -- that's all you can wish for," said Pocahontas Brown, who lives two houses up the road from Foster. Brown said she used to live higher up in the hills and rues her decision to move to Shipp Street.

Several other houses were within inches of being submerged. With the crest of the river still several days away, residents fear it's only a matter of time before they are inundated. Like other parts of the Mississippi Delta, Port Gibson sits more than a dozen miles from the river, but its proximity to tributaries and backwater streams leaves it at much greater risk of flooding than it otherwise would be.

One of the oldest towns in Mississippi, Port Gibson has a history deeply ingrained in the Civil War. The wooden welcome sign to town reads, "Too beautiful to burn," a statement made by Ulysses S. Grant after a major battle in the area, according to legend.

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HuffPost's Laura Gottesdiener reports:

The Feds have given the Army Corps of Engineers the official approval to open the Morganza spillway Friday evening, an act that would avoid massive flooding in New Orleans, but will blanket about 3,000 square miles of southeast Louisiana in standing water up to 25 inches high.

The President of the Mississippi River Commission Major General Michael J. Walsh gave the orders early Friday evening, saying that the New Orleans District Commander Colonel Ed Fleming should to be prepared to open the spillway within the next 24 hours.

Opening this floodway, which has remained closed for 38 years, will divert the flooding Mississippi River down the Atchafalaya River, which is to the west of the Mississippi, and runs through mostly sparsely populated areas of southeast Louisiana.

On a boat on the Mississippi River itself, Army Corps officials told The Huffington Post that it’s not absolutely definite the spillway will be opened, but the current predictions about the water’s flow rate certainly indicate that it will happen.

The limit for opening the Morganza is a flow rate that exceeds 1.5 million cubic feet per second, and currently the projections are at 1.6 million.

“Before the predictions were at 1.8 million, so we’re going in the right direction,” said Bob Anderson of the Army Corps. "We’re hoping over the next 24 hours it will decrease, but right now the projection is 1.6 million.”

Anderson said that the major consideration for opening the Morganza spillway is protecting the existing levees and floodwalls that control the river. If those fail, he warned, there could be an uncontrollable breach with massive amounts of water flowing in unpredictable directions, including into New Orleans and Baton Rogue.

As for the state of the river itself, he said that it’s looking wilder than he’s ever seen it.

“The river’s big, it’s wide, it’s nasty,” Anderson said. “It’s got a lot of floating debris and trees. It is the big money.”

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HuffPost's Laura Gottesdiener reports:

As the torrent of water from the swollen Mississippi swirls ever farther south, economist are projecting billions in damages in the South. Farmers are lamenting thousands of crops destroyed. And residents in Southeast Louisiana are contemplating evacuating their homes in the event that the Morganza Spillway is opened on Saturday.

But those ankle deep in the flood zone may also have a more insidious concern: ants. Humans aren't the only species that depend upon dry land for housing, and the floodwater is flushing out whole colonies of fire ants. The insects' response: Thousands will cling together to form a ball that floats along the surface of the water, threatening to sting anything in its path.

The AP reports from Yazoo City, Mississippi, that ants are "seemingly everywhere."

Entomologist are not at all surprised by the phenomenon and caution that it's more than an environmental curiosity.

"I'm sure people can get stung if they're walking in the water," said Jim Kalisch, an entomologist and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"It's really painful," he added, explaining that the hundreds of ants will grab on to one's skin with their mandibles and transfer venom from stingers on the tip of their abdomens. The venom causes intense pain and blistering.

Of course, ants aren't the only species flushed out by the flood. Environmentalists also predict poisonous snakes and other animals will surface in increasing numbers.

"The flood mobilizes a lot of things that can be nuisance," said Donald Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "Like poisonous snakes — they get washed out of where they normally live and create all sorts of mischief," he said.

Check out this video of a mass of floating fireants ants on the Mississippi River during flooding in 2009:

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AP reports:

YAZOO CITY, Miss. — A slow migration unfolded in central Mississippi on Thursday, with people and animals seeking higher ground to escape the flooding from the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

In Louisiana, water poured over a century-old levee, flooding 12,000 acres of corn and soybeans despite farmers' frantic efforts to shore up the structure. Downstream, officials with the Port of New Orleans said the Coast Guard could close the river to ships as early as Monday, halting traffic on one of the world's busiest commercial waterways.

After swamping low-lying neighborhoods in Memphis, Tenn., earlier this week, the rising water is bringing misery to farms and small waterfront communities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. The Corps of Engineers is considering whether to open the Morganza spillway, which would flood thousands of homes and acres of farmland along a 100-mile stretch in Louisiana but take the pressure off levees and help to protect Baton Rouge, New Orleans and the oil refineries in between. A decision is expected in the next several days.

In Yazoo City, Miss., Brett Robinson drove slowly down River Road near his farm Thursday, staring at corn fields that are beginning to look like lakes. He stopped his truck, pulled out a rifle and shot a wild hog swimming through his corn. He knows he'll lose the crops to the flood anyway, but that hog could be a nuisance even longer than the water.

"We lose a lot of crops to them," he said of wild pigs. "We can lose 40 acres in a night. They can give birth three times a year and have 15 in a litter."

Wild pigs multiply faster than farmers, hunters and wildlife officials can deal with them. The flood is driving them into the open, giving farmers an opportunity to kill them.

Read more here.

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To view a slideshow with the latest photos of the tragedy along the Mississippi, click here.

AP: Seth Robinson, 4, looks around at the Yazoo River flooding of his father's corn crop on farm land along River Road, north of Yazoo City, Miss., Thursday, May 12, 2011. Thousands of acres of corn, wheat, soybean and cotton crops are now underwater as the tributaries are backing up from flooding along the Mississippi River. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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HuffPost's Laura Gottesdiener reports:

As the flood crest of the overflowing Mississippi River slowly moves south, state officials are debating whether the Army Corps of Engineers should open the Morganza Spillway, a floodway in Louisiana located on the western bank that can be used to control the flow of water downstream. Opening the Morganza Spillway would divert the growing crest away from major cities downstream, including Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Instead, the water would flow down the Atchafalaya River, which is to the west of the Mississippi in Louisiana, and ultimately out to the Gulf.

The Morganza Spillway has only been opened once before, in 1973. Officials estimate that opening it now could flood 3 million acres of farmland. The area is not densely populated, but it does include Morgan City and Houma.

In anticipation of the possible opening, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told residents yesterday in Southeast Louisiana to consider evacuating their homes.

"If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides to open the Morganza Spillway, it could take approximately a week from the day they start, and roughly 3,900 people and 2,600 structures would be impacted by the high water," Jindal told CNN.

Don Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told HuffPost yesterday that officials are growing close to making the decision, and that the possibility of the crest swamping New Orleans may force their hands.

“If the alternative is flooding new Orleans again, there is no choice.”

The Army Corps. of Engineers predicts that Saturday could be the day it opens the Spillway if the rate of water flow continues as expected.

See a map of the Morganza Spillway and the possible diverted flooding by The Washington Post.

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