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Just Who are they Protecting along the Mississippi?

I’ve been watching a lot of Weather Channel and local news trying to get more information on the local flooding and the decision to open up the Morganza Spillway. I live within blocks of the Mississippi River and lived through Katrina so it’s a natural response for me. If you watch the major national news outlets, you’re under the impression that the Morganza Spillway opening will protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from eminent flooding. The implication is that the Mississippi will top the levees and fill up the cities. Every one then envisions another après Katrina situation. That’s what they want you to believe, but that doesn’t appear to be the case as I’ve learned the last few days.

The local TV has had the city council and mayor of New Orleans and of Baton Rouge talking about the situation to the press on air on Thursday. Their main worry is that the speed and level of the river will cause barge traffic navigation and berth problems. If a rogue barge or boat hits a levee that could compromise the levee. City officials would shut down the river traffic before they would let that happen.

New Orleans city officials, with Katrina still fresh in their minds, has a plan for barges that may threaten the city’s river levees: “We can’t afford to have barges running loose, breaking levees,” said New Orleans City Council President Jackie Clarkson. “That’s unacceptable now … We’re going to sink them.”

Right now, the levees are expected to be able to handle the river even if the Morganza Spillway isn’t open. So, what would’ve  happen if the Morganaza Spillway wasn’t opened? Why are they really flooding Cajun Country?

The bottom line is that 10 oil refineries in the Baton Rouge/New Orleans area probably go off line for about 10 days and the river will be closed to traffic or traffic will be severely limited because the levels that trigger precautionary shut downs would be reached. Plus, the City Council President has threatened to sink any barges going rogue which can’t be making shipping interests very happy in general. When “they” speak about ‘saving’ New Orleans and Baton Rouge, what they’re really discussing is saving the commercial interests and the tax revenues. It would impact both the dollar and the price of oil as well as the price of soybeans, wheat, and other grains. Here’s just a taste of that.

Oil fell on Friday as the dollar rose and concerns eased that refinery operations could be disrupted by Mississippi River flooding.

However, what every one in the press and speaking to the press infers is the prevention of some kind of post-Katrina repeat. Few come out and say it, however. According to my Mayor and City Council, that’s not in the cards period and since they all lived through Katrina, I actually believe them. So, it’s just like in 1927 when a bunch of New Orleans businessmen convinced the government to blow levees unnecessarily displacing a lot of poor folk and flooding their homes. I’m thinking this is all about the lost $2 million dollars a day tax revenues each to both the State of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans plus the costs to impacted businesses of a likely 10 day shut down.

So, first, let me take you through how I figured this out. I suppose it started with the Mayor’s presser on Thursday that basically was headlined “The City is Safe”. I also saw how anxious our Governor was to get the Corps of Engineers to just make the decision to open the spillway. Now, my governor is not the most people-centric man. Governor Bobby Jindal is only concerned about himself and industry interests who fund his campaigns. Jindal’s been been running around the state telling people to flee and emphasizing that the area around the Atchfayala Basin will flood with or without the Morganza Spillway opening as if that alone is justification for flooding people out of their homes. He just seemed over anxious to get it opened. He’s made the Corps look like it’s dragging its feet on this when it basically announced the height and river speed that would be required to open that spillway and they’ve done so consistently.

But again, the big news lead has been protecting the city of New Orleans. We’re now the poster child of flooding because of the post-Katrina levee failure. Again, our Mayor says we’re safe.

The mayor says officials do not expect flooding in New Orleans because of the strength and size of the river levees.

At the news conference, the Corps of Engineers reiterated that they do not yet have the green light to open the Morganza Spillway to relieve pressure off the city’s levees.

“We have not gotten approval to open and operate the Morganza Floodway yet,” said Lt. Col. Mark Jernigan. “We expect, based upon the National Weather Service Forecast, to reach the optimal trigger this weekend.”

Corps officials have maintained that they expect to open the Morganza structure some time between Saturday and Tuesday.

Mayor Landrieu stressed that authorities are inspecting the levees around the clock. He asked people to resist the urge to go on the levees to see the river for themselves, warning that they could get in the way of levee inspection work, or even be hurt by debris that’s bobbing along the surface of the surging river.

So, the levees will protect the city. The levees along the Mississippi River are 25 feet tall and are as wide as a football field. The river–without the Morganza opening–was forecast to crest well below that. The floodwalls mentioned below are the concrete ones along the canals that have been redone since their failure during the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina. They’re not really threatened either with or without the Morganza Spillway Opening.

The river is predicted to crest on May 23 at 19.5 feet—2.5 feet above the official flood level, but six inches shy of the city’s 20-foot floodwalls.

That was the information prior to any decision made on the Morganza spillway that opened today. Here’s an example of the spin again with the “avert a a potentially bigger disaster in Baton Rouge and New Orleans”. Notice the ‘bigger disaster’ is what you infer from the Katrina Experience.  This is from The Weather Channel.

In an agonizing trade-off, Army engineers said they will open a key spillway along the bulging Mississippi River on Saturday and inundate thousands of homes and farms in Louisiana’s Cajun country to avert a potentially bigger disaster in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Shortly after Governor Bobby Jindal announced that the Morganza Spillway would be opened “within 24 hours,” a Friday afternoon press release from the Army Corps of Engineers cemented it: “The President of the Mississippi River Commission Major General Michael J. Walsh has directed the New Orleans District Commander Colonel Ed Fleming to be prepared to operate the Morganza Floodway within 24 hours. The operation will include the deliberate and slow opening of the structure.”

About 25,000 people and 11,000 structures could be in harm’s way when the gates on the Morganza spillway are unlocked for the first time in 38 years.

Earlier this week, the Corps did three scenarios including two without opening the Morganza Spillway. The worst case scenarios have both water speed and height that aren’t actually forecast to happen. What is supposed to happen is the the bare minimum level that justifies opening the Morganza Spillway. The absolute worst scenario would be levee failure which isn’t considered the least bit likely which is why the mayor and city council of New Orleans aren’t the least bit concerned.

So, let me give you some information on what is threatened by a ten day shut down if the Morganza Spillway remains closed. This first business interest is the sacred oil industry: Mississippi flooding threatens nearby oil refineries. At specific heights and river speeds, the 10 oil refinaries along the river must be shut down as a precaution even though the facilities are protected by levees. This industry and its interests fear the repeat of what happened when they shut down during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A lesser known fact is that about 14%of the national refining capacity is potentially at risk from a worse-case scenario of the Mississippi River flooding and inundating the low-lying facilities. Ten refineries (nine in Louisiana and one in Tennessee) are in the immediate floodplain of the Mississippi, protected only by levees.

To date (as the Mississippi gets set to crest in Memphis tonight) Valero Energy reportsthat its 180,000-barrels-per-day Memphis plant is secure, as is its 185,000-barrel-per-day St Charles refinery in Norco, Louisiana. Norco is also where Motiva Enterprises has a refinery. Motiva’s joint venture partner Royal Dutch Shell has a facility further west along the Mississippi at Convent, Louisiana.

To relieve pressure from the swollen river in this area the US Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway today, sending excess water into Lake Pontchartrain.

The Gulf Coast and Louisiana are essential to the US oil industry and any one that relies on the gas and oil. (See the Map at the top of this post.)

  • Louisiana ranks fourth among the States in crude oil production, behind Texas, Alaska, and California (excluding Federal offshore areas, which produce more than any single State).
  • The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) is the only port in the United States capable of accommodating deepdraft tankers.
  • Two of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve’s four storage facilities are located in Louisiana.
  • The Henry Hub is the largest centralized point for natural gas spot and futures trading in the United States, providing access to major markets throughout the country.
  • The liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal at Sabine is the largest of nine existing LNG import sites in the United States.

But there’s another industry that’s equally reliant on the Mississippi River and barge traffic. That would be US agribusiness. About 62% of US soybean and grain exports move through New Orleans on barges. Oh, and coal moves that way too, just so you know. The wheat industry was hard hit by the shutdown of the Port of New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina period. You can read more about that by following that link.

Here’s some analysis from the Weather Channel on what’s at stake in terms of nonbusiness interests. The first set of points deals with not opening the Morganza Spillway.

This is clearly one of the toughest decisions made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If you don’t open the spillway…

  • You will still have river flooding along the Atchafalaya River, just not nearly as expansive.
  • You risk putting undue pressure on the Old River Control Structure, which may get overwhelmed.
  • This would cause the catastrophic “jumping” of the Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya River Basin, as described earlier.
  • Pressure on levees in Baton Rouge and New Orleans would remain high, if the Old River Control Structure does not fail.

However, if you do open the spillway…

  • There will be widespread inundation of the Atchafalaya Basin.
  • Areas outside of levee protection would be under at least 5 feet of water.
  • Pressure on levees in Baton Rouge and New Orleans would be lower.

The reason this is a tough call is that it’s obvious that relieving “pressure” on the levees under the assumed “risk” to overwhelming the system is based on their worst case scenarios which aren’t in the forecast. They are justifying opening the spillway on the worst case scenarios which appear low probability. While the river levels and speed will be historically high, it’s been obvious that the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway has significantly reduced any danger of that to New Orleans also. Any one doing some river watching can see that the levels have fallen although it’s also being reported by feet and inches by local weather news. There’s a lot more room for the coming higher waters now that the BC spillway opened.

However, the levels and river speed that are forecast are basically right at the marginal levels that would justify the Morganza Spillway opening even though they are unlikely to cause those worst case scenarios which is why Mayor Landrieu and the City Council are dismissing flooding possibilities and obsessing on rogue barges. The measurements are, however, high and quick enough for a likely shutdown to river traffic (19 feet) and precautionary shutdowns of the refineries and chemical plants along the river for a period of at least 10 days. Unless, that is, Cajun Country is flooded to bring the numbers back to the everything is okey dokey, business-as-usual measurements.

Here’s some more analysis today from The Weather Channel. Again, from what I can tell down here from public hearings, the most likely source levee failure in New Orleans would be from the barge traffic and not the river itself. However, always present in the analysis is the industry that lines the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. All of which have to shut down for precautionary purposes for about 10 days if the Morganza Spillway were to remain closed because most of them deal in hazardous materials so the EPA makes them shut down when they are marginally threatened.

Opening the spillway will release a torrent that could submerge about 3,000 square miles under as much as 25 feet of water in some areas but take the pressure off the downstream levees protecting New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the numerous oil refineries and chemical plants along the lower reaches of the Mississippi.

“Protecting lives is the No. 1 priority,” Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said at a news conference aboard a vessel on the river at Vicksburg. A few hours later, the corps made the decision to open the key spillway and inundate thousands of homes and farms in Louisiana’s Cajun country to avert a potentially bigger disaster in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Engineers feared that weeks of pressure on the levees could cause them to fail, swamping New Orleans under as much as 20 feet of water in a disaster that would have been much worse than Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Again, the argument for levee failure seems quite weak at the moment. This is especially true since the Corps been working the last five years to expand and strengthen that very same levee system to withstand the storm surge that came with Hurricane Katrina. They’ve been bragging about that new protection for years now, so it seems odd that they’d feel threatened by it under the most marginally ‘risky’ situation.  It is worth noting that the official ‘flooding stage’ of the Mississippi River in New Orleans is about 10 feet below the river levees and the only thing it really does is trigger cautions for navigation on the river.  It doesn’t threaten over-topping of levees or flooding.

It is likely that the real threat of the high river right now is the loss of 10 days of business to the oil industry, the state and local government coffers and to the agribusiness and chemical industry plus the associated losses to the Insurance and Banking industries that ensure against these types of loss-of-business scenarios. The Governor and other interests are less worried about the post Katrina situation impacting the population as they are the post Katrina situation impacting the oil industry and the port. I am not sure what the Federal government’s role would be in this decision, but if you remember what gas prices were during the post-Katrina period, I’m sure they wouldn’t want a repeat of those price spikes. Here’s a bit more of the economic impact of a prolonged river shut down via HuffPo.

The river’s rise may also force the closing of the river to shipping, from Baton Rouge to the mouth of the Mississippi, as early as next week. That would cause grain barges from the heartland to stack up along with other commodities.

If the portion is closed, the U.S. economy could lose hundreds of millions of dollars a day. In 2008, a 100-mile stretch of the river was closed for six days after a tugboat collided with a tanker, spilling about 500,000 gallons of fuel. The Port of New Orleans estimated the shutdown cost the economy up to $275 million a day.

The decision to open the Morganza spillway is made by the Mississippi River Commission by suggestion of the US Corps of Engineers. This commission is made up of a number of civilian and corps engineers and a representative from NOAA. You remember, NOAA, those are the folks that appear to be protecting BP from the spill at nearly every turn. Also, NOAA has a close relationships with the Weather Channel and other providers of weather-related information. One of the commissioners is a businessman with interests in land and cotton. The other one has interests in cotton and grain which, of course, move by barges down the Mississippi. Those would be the same barges that my City Council President threatened to blow up if they go rogue on the river.

So, I actually think we’re seeing a closer repeat of Louisiana, 1927 than most folks realize. You can see many historical photos from the flooding of Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes in 1927 caused by blowing up levees to protect New Orleans Business interests. You’ll be seeing similar photos shortly from the Atchafalaya Basin parishes shortly.

Enjoy your fill up at the pump and your morning wheat toast folks! Believe me, this isn’t to keep my city from another post-Katrina apocalypse even though that’s what they’re implying.

Crossposted at my blog Sky Dancing.

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Financial Economist, Jazz Pianist, Vajrayana Buddhist, mother of 2 young women living in New Orleans.