Record flooding threatens Gulf Coast”again

“Like a monster coming down the River”


The heavy floods coming down the Mississippi River threaten Gulf Coast ecosystems and livelihoods, writes Kiley Kroh.

The Gulf Coast region, still reeling from the oil-laden assault on its ecosystem and livelihoods, is now bracing for what’s being called one of the worst cases of flooding since the 1920s and “the nation’s slowest moving natural disaster.” Economists are projecting billions of dollars in damages just as local Gulf-dependent industries such as fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism are struggling back to profitability after the devastating blows from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the BP oil spill.

Last week, residents braced for the worst-case scenario: levee breaks that could potentially exceed the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina. To ease the threat of flooding in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, on Saturday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway for the first time in nearly four decades””sending a torrent of water toward thousands of homes in the French-speaking Louisiana countryside, “threatening to slowly submerge the land under water up to 25 feet (7.6 meters) deep.” The massive release of water from the Morganza and Bonnet Carre Spillway, which was opened earlier this month — along with the decision to blow up the Birds Point levee — means the river is spreading across hundreds of thousands of acres of farmlands that contain enormous amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals that will eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition to immediate public health concerns, scientists are worried these pollutants will exacerbate the already enormous “dead zone” that occurs annually in the Gulf. The dead zone is a lifeless band of water off the coast that forms as a direct result of the influx of nitrogen-rich river water carrying massive quantities of fertilizer and pollution from upstream agriculture and industry. It fluctuates in size each year, and last year’s dead zone was larger than the state of Massachusetts.

Scientists expect the historic flooding could lead to the largest dead zone on record, which could stretch the massive area all the way to the Texas coast. An expanded dead zone will be a major stress on fish, shrimp, and other species struggling to rebound from last year’s oil spill because marine life will suffocate and die if it can’t swim away from or otherwise flee these hypoxic conditions. Thus, as the Thibodaux Daily Comet notes, it will be “another setback for fishermen trawling the Gulf in hopes of making up for last year’s spring fishing season, which was shut down in much of the state by the BP oil spill.”

Additionally, the unprecedented flooding will deal another major blow to the area’s already struggling oystermen. Nearly half of Louisiana’s entire oyster population was destroyed in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe when floodgates were opened upstream to reverse the flow of the river and prevent oil-contaminated water from making its way further inland. As a result, the water became too brackish for the oysters to survive. An insurance program established in the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina did not cover oil spills and was dismantled soon after the BP disaster, leaving oystermen ineligible for assistance. To make matters worse, earlier this year BP reneged on promises to help Louisiana pay for rebuilding oyster beds, claiming it wasn’t the one making the decision to open the floodgates.

Just when it looked as if Louisiana oysters were staging a remarkable comeback, the impending floods, and onslaught of fresh water, will shut them down again. Another collapse would be absolutely devastating for the state that produces 40 percent of the nation’s oysters.  Mike Voisin, a seventh-generation oysterman, fears that for some of his hardest-hit colleagues, this latest setback will be “a knockout blow.”

Over the next week, tens of thousands of residents will be forced to pack up and head for higher ground while the worst of the flooding slowly makes its way toward their homes. In the words of Melville, LA, resident Gerry Krasgrow, “It’s like a monster coming down the river.” While the Gulf Coast region has shown such great resilience in the wake of Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, one has to wonder how many more hits they can take””and there doesn’t appear to be any relief on the horizon.

For up-to-the-minute information on Mississippi River flooding and video from the ground, visit:

Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director for Ocean Communications at American Progress.

Note:  The figure predates the opening of the Spillway, but it’s the best explanatory graphic I could find online.

For more on triage like this as an ‘adaptation’ strategy:

For background on the link between global warming and deluges:

20 Responses to Record flooding threatens Gulf Coast”again

  1. darth says:

    since this natural flood is exacerbated by climate change, does that make these people ‘climate refugees’ ?

  2. sturat says:

    That movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ got it wrong. The world is enormous so it can take years for the world to end everywhere.

  3. Bob Potter says:

    problems with you blogging software

    #2 was from catman306

    now I have Bob Potter’s address in the name and address box.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    An article in the UK ‘Daily Telegraph’s’ ‘Environment’ section (yes, I know, it is a joke)outlining the near total destruction of crops across the country by drought, was greeted by choruses of ‘scare story’. Nothing will ever change the denialists, absolutely nothing.

  5. Anonymous says:

    If we had not started this war against our rivers but had instead respected them and let them run free, we would not have to be fighting them now, ME

  6. Joan Savage says:


    Re #2 and #3 I had “Justin Bowles,” and an email to go with it, show up in the name and address box around 5:10 p.m.
    My computer-savvy son suggested it was likely to be a problem at the CP webpage.

    Joan Savage

  7. Gord says:

    “Climate Refugees” yes indeed … Darth. This is just the start of a growing world-wide phenomena.

    The ‘New Normal’ is just getting underway.

  8. adelady says:

    joan @ 7.24 – and I just had your details in my name and address box. This looks like some kind of cyber progressive dance.

  9. Lore says:

    At what point in the future do we give up trying to save New Orleans?

  10. llewelly says:

    darth says:
    May 17, 2011 at 4:46 pm:

    since this natural flood is exacerbated by climate change, does that make these people ‘climate refugees’?

    On average, global warming increases flooding by only a few percent. So without some particular reason to suppose global warming made an unusually large contribution to this specific flood, only a few percent of those people are climate refugees.

    [JR: Not true. Water vapor up a few percent can increase deluges and flooding a very large amount, as big storms sweep over huge areas.]

    Probably there are grad students out there already working on attribution studies. I guess one interesting place to look would be the gigantic high pressure system that sat on Greenland and Northern Canada for about the first half the winter. This blocking high directed a good many storms to dump precipitation (snow) into the Mississippi basin, that would have otherwise gone partly or mostly into more northerly basins. Historically, La Niña winters – and the most recent winter was a La Niña winter – typically deliver below average precipitation to the upper Mississippi basin. But last winter, due largely to that blocking high, much of the upper Mississippi basin received record or near-record precipitation.

    But until the attribution studies are done, my amateur position is that only a few percent of those refugees are due to climate change.

    It is worth recalling John McPhee’s article The Control of Nature: Atchafalaya (linked here some days ago by Joe). Absent human intervention, the region flooded by the opening of the spillways would have been the natural pathway of the Mississippi, and thus its flood waters. The staggering river control structures John McPhee described are a human effort to hold back a change in the environment. Had they not been built, many of those refugees would not live in a flood path, as the rivers there would have been higher all along, not merely during extreme floods. (On the other hand, the effort of rebuilding all the industry that demanded the river control structures along the Atchafalaya would have drawn many people into the flood zones of the much enhanced river.)

    Most of the refugees are attributable to human decisions about who to protect from floods, who lives in flood zones, who gets water, and so forth.

    I cannot help but think that as global warming continues, humans will be forced to build many sorts of flood control structures. Obviously some will be in response to rising oceans. But others will also be in response to changing rivers; already the storm tracks of mid-latitude cyclones, which deliver the majority of the precipitation received by the world’s non-tropical rivers, are shifting poleward at an average rate of about 70 miles per year. It seems likely that as GHG concentrations increase, the rate of temperature rise will increase, and the poleward shift of storm tracks will accelerate. Precipitation received by river basins is already changing, and it is likely to change faster in the future. The rivers themselves will change in response. And in many cases humans will build enormous structures to combat those changes. These structures, in times of disasters, will present us with harsh choices, akin to those the US Army Corps of Engineers has recently made (and will continue to make) with respect to the use of spillways. The difference being that today’s Mississippi river control structures were built in response to natural changes. Many future flood control structures will be built in response to human-caused changes.

    Our ongoing failure to recognize that we have become the primary driving force of changes in climate, and in ecosystems, will force us to become still more deeply invested in control of the environment we depend on. With our limited understanding of these complex systems, which are undergoing harsh changes due to our past and present mistakes, it seems likely that further costly mistakes will be made.

    It seems to me this is among the best of reasons to be wary of proposed climate “solutions” which do not directly reduce excess GHG levels. The injection of sulphates into the upper atmosphere will require further geoengineering to cope with a dryer climate and ongoing ocean acidification. Similar problems will arise with orbital mirrors, and with all other geoengineering ideas I am aware of. There is no record of large-scale engineering projects without numerous unforeseen cascade effects, which required further large-scale engineering projects. After all, the ongoing disaster of global warming is itself due entirely to a (mostly) unforeseen side effect of the large-scale adoption of fossil fuel energy systems.

  11. Richard Brenne says:

    Lore (#9) – Unfortunately, in August, 2005.

  12. Colorado Bob says:

    The worst water in the history if the world, is about to wipe-out a perfectly good TV series.

  13. Colorado Bob says:

    Remember folks , what’s happening to our friends at the bottom of the river is not water, it’s a toilet of trash being flushed into one of the richest places on earth.

  14. Jason Kim says:

    The idea behind Earth Day 2011 is to demonstrate that millions of small acts can make a profound difference in the environment by balancing the use of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.

    Jason Kim

  15. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always found it interesting to imagine the conditions during past hot house climates, hundreds of thousands and millions of years ago. These are marked in off shore sediment records as periods of high deposition, presumably from increased erosion caused by both the loss of vegetation (denudation of the landscape), and greater and more intense rainfall. After all, increased erosion is one of the earth’s thermostatstatic controls that, by increasing carbon sequestration, eventually turns the temperature back down (after tens of thousands or millions of years). I’ve wondered just how accurate the scientific depictions of the goings on in these hot house landscapes really were. After all, no one was really around to see it.

    Now we have front row seats to the catastrophe. Giant floods have become commonplace. Massive fires denude the landscape. Horrid droughts cause the loss of vegetation across millions of acres at a time. And this is just the very beginning of it all. I hope folks realize that at no point will we be able to walk out of this horror movie.

  16. paulm says:

    “It’s behaving somewhat like a tropical storm in terms of heavy rain, but without an actual tropical storm,” said Chief Meteorologist Elliot Abrams.

  17. catman306 says:

    @anonymous 11:19
    You have revealed the plot of this blockbuster event with a cast of many millions and production costs in the $trillions. Those sediment deposits will be rich with the ground up detritus of our civilization.

    When I studied geomorphology the definition of a river included ‘ a channeled flow of water AND sediment”. Even Wikipedia leaves out the sediment part in today’s definition. Of course, this is why all dam reservoirs eventually fill in with sediment. And why today few people understand rivers.

  18. llewelly says:

    Richard Brenne | May 17, 2011 at 9:09 pm:

    Lore (#9) – Unfortunately, in August, 2005.

    Sadly no. Prior to 2005, hurricane researchers at Tulane and many other fine universities had for decades made great efforts to convince people that a major hurricane landfall near New Orleans was very likely over any given 30 year period, and inevitable in the long run. They made the very clear case that New Orleans was extremely vulnerable. And little done to protect New Orleans. No, America gave up on New Orleans in 1980. Katrina was just the beginning of the consequences.

    And I do mean only the beginning. The 20th contained major hurricanes that came closer to New Orleans than Katrina, including Camille of 1969, hurricane #5 in 1948, Betsy of 1965, and hurricane #6 in 1915. New Orleans got the low side of Katrina’s storm surge, and probably only category 2 strength winds, as the center of Katrina passed well to the east of New Orleans.

    It is common to think of Katrina as an exceptional disaster. But the facts show that while Katrina was exceptional in some ways, it did not hit New Orleans exceptionally hard; New Orleans got lucky. There will be another major hurricane landfall in the vicinity of New Orleans, and odds are New Orleans will not get lucky a second time.

  19. llewelly says:

    catman306 | May 18, 2011 at 8:33 am:

    When I studied geomorphology the definition of a river included ‘ a channeled flow of water AND sediment”. Even Wikipedia leaves out the sediment part in today’s definition. Of course, this is why all dam reservoirs eventually fill in with sediment. And why today few people understand rivers

    If you love to read about dams, and the consequences of sediment, read Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West., by James Lawrence Powell

  20. Richard Brenne says:

    llewelly – Thanks for all your comments here, which are very helpful. I was being a bit flippant and your comment trumped mine.

    In fact after Katrina when Bush said “No one could have seen this coming” I was very disappointed that Bill Clinton said the same thing and I always felt, “Yeah no one except the Tulane and other experts (who you mention), and anyone that watched the History, Discovery or National Geographic channels” that each has documentary programs about how vulnerable New Orleans was, Nat Geo’s appearing just months before Katrina hit.

    I agree with all your other comments as well except the first paragraph of #10 where Joe also disagreed. That is a complex question, but human-caused climate change; the channelization and levees along the river; and increased run-off from roofs, pavement and deforestation as well as building where one shouldn’t are all factors along with some degree of natural variability that is also always present in a flood.