HOUMA — The flood threat facing residents of western Terrebonne has grown more serious as Midwestern rains continue to feed the swollen Mississippi River.
Flood threats not seen since the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 have U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials considering opening the Morganza spillway north of Baton Rouge. That could send more water streaming into the Atchafalaya Basin, threatening communities in Terrebonne and St. Mary parishes.
It would be only the second time the spillway has been opened. The first, in 1973, caused major flooding in the area.
Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet announced a state of emergency Tuesday in advance of the possible flooding. St. Mary is also in a state of emergency.
The declarations are necessary before the parishes can request federal aid.
High waters in the Atchafalaya River could cause flooding for residents of Gibson, Bayou Black, Bull Run Road and Southdown Mandalay.
Claudet said representatives from local engineering offices will be meeting to brainstorm ways to protect the parish. The Paris Council is set to meet at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the Government Tower to decide whether to use up to $1 million from an emergency account to deal with any flooding.
The corps is modeling how water from the Morganza spillway will affect lower Atchafalaya parishes. Claudet said he has requested that information to help the parish plan.
Sandbags will be placed in affected communities as soon as today so residents can prepare their homes. No locations had been announced by late this morning.
It’s difficult to speculate who will flood because the last time the spillway was opened fewer people lived in flood-threatened areas, Claudet said.
“The last time an event like this happened was in 1973, when Terrebonne was much more rural,” Claudet said. “We’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”
Lafourche Parish officials said Tuesday they expect no problems from the river flooding but have sandbags ready if necessary. Assumption Parish officials didn’t return phone calls Tuesday afternoon.
The Atchafalaya River, which carries about 30 percent of the Mississippi River’s water, was at 5.4 feet Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. Flood stage is 4 feet. The river is projected to reach a crest of 9 1/2 feet by May 23 in Morgan City, said Jim Salzwedel, a hydro-meteorological technician with the National Weather Service office in Slidell.
That’s up from last week’s predicted crest of 8 1/2 feet due to more heavy rain upstream.
At that level, businesses on the river side of the floodwall in both Morgan City and Berwick would be inundated.
As floodwaters from the river reach 7 feet, which could happen as early as May 12, neighborhoods throughout Bayou Black and Gibson, as well as low-lying properties along La. 182 and Southdown Mandalay Road, will begin to be affected by high water.
The Atchafalaya River’s highest recorded flood level in Morgan City was in 1973, at 10.5 feet — the last time the Morganza spillway was opened.
“Some people are already packing,” said Gibson resident Roosevelt Seymore, who said the possibility of flooding has been talked about in local churches. “If you look at the newspaper, people have to have some concern. It’s been a bad year. Some people are preparing already.”
The community has had multiple warnings about river flooding in recent years, none of which have planned out, said Terrebonne Parish Councilwoman Arlanda Williams, who represents the area.
“Last year, we were prepared for the worst, but the worst didn’t happen. Unfortunately, I fear that’s not going to be the case this year,” Williams said.
But she added that the community is taking the threat seriously, as longtime residents still remember past river floods. The last time the community faced major river flooding was 1991.
State Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, recalled the chaos brought on by the 1973 Morganza spillway opening and subsequent flood in his hometown.
He had just returned home after a stint in the military. The flood cost people jobs because industrial businesses outside the river levee were shut down for months. Schools were closed because families were worried about leaving their children on the opposite side of the swollen river.
The corps filled boxes with oyster shells and placed them on top of the floodwalls as an extra layer of protection. “It wasn’t a big confidence builder,” Gautreaux said. Luckily, waters only reached the top of the wall and lapped at the makeshift protection.
“As the water rose, we watched it every day,” Gautreaux said. “There was stress from jobs lost, families afraid of not being together if there was an emergency, people afraid of losing their homes.”
That memory, Gautreaux said, means communities are taking their preparations seriously. He also urged homeowners to buy flood insurance if they don’t have it already.