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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Mississippi River Flood Relief: An Operational Update

Maj. William General Grisoli, Deputy Commanding General, Civil and Emergency Operations, US Army Corps of Engineers
Washington, DC
May 19, 2011

Date: 05/19/2011 Description: Maj. William General Grisoli, Deputy Commanding General, Civil and Emergency Operations, US Army Corps of Engineers gives an operational update of the Mississippi River flood relief efforts via teleconference.  © U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

2:00 P.M. EDT

MG GRISOLI: Thanks. This is (inaudible) Major General Bill Grisoli. And thank you for your – the opportunity to discuss with you this tremendous challenge that we’re having in the Mississippi Valley with our citizens and the great work being done by federal, state, and local authorities.

What I’d like to do today for you is provide you a quick update, give you a little background of how we got to where we are, and then take your questions. So hopefully, that will fulfill what you need as far as understanding this tremendous challenge that we have.

I also provided some initial slides just to give you kind of the scope of what we’re dealing with in the Mississippi Valley and the 41 percent of the U.S. land mass drains down through the small area that we’re seeing now in the news in New Orleans and Morgan City, and that’s part of the challenge of managing this tremendous system that we have.

So a quick update: We continue to operate this system, the Mississippi River and tributary system, deliberately and safely to protect the lives and reduce risks to property. And so far, we’ve been very fortunate as the system is working as designed, and we feel very comfortable.

Currently, as you see, the crest is moving towards Vicksburg, Mississippi. The flooding you see there, the localized flooding, is backwater flooding. And what do I mean by that? That’s when you have tributaries entering a very large river like the Mississippi that’s at historic levels is overwhelmed, and so therefore the Mississippi flows into that tributary versus the tributary flowing into the Mississippi. And you see those small communities that are impacted there that we try to work with and help, but they’re inundated by water at this point in time. We continue to monitor all the levies as the water moves down through the system, monitor the sand boils, and assist citizens that are impacted by the river itself.

What you saw over the weekend was the decision that I’ll talk a little bit more about later, but it’s the Morganza Spillway. It’s operating now. We continue to increase the flow. We’re doing that because we want to reduce the stress on the levies as we come to the maximum capacity that we’re able to handle in the Baton Rouge, the New Orleans river area. And what we’re doing now is – as by design – is moving some of that water that needs to flow to the Gulf through the Atchafalaya Valley. We understand it’s a tough choice. It impacts a lot of our citizens. But we had a choice of an urban area where we might have a failure due to putting too much stress on those levies, or moving, as designed, to an offshoot. And I’ll talk to you a little bit about floodways in a minute.

One of the key parts so far as far as being able to work with the state and local has been the slow release. The slow release was done for three key factors. First was to continue to allow time for folks to evacuate and work with the state, and you can see that’s still happening, as it (inaudible) quite a while, and some of the good news there is the land was very dry, so it’s even taking longer than we anticipated, because if it went across a wet soil it would have moved faster. But since it’s dry, it moves a little slower. We wanted to monitor the structure itself, make sure we don’t have any scouring (inaudible). We haven’t operated this structure since ’73, so we want to make sure that it’s safe. And third is we want to afford time for the wildlife to move out of the way.

So how did we get to this point? How did we get to these historic levels? As you heard in the news, April was an historic rainfall in the Ohio Valley. And the Ohio River is 60 to 70 percent of the volume of water that you see in the Mississippi. So when you have an unprecedented amount of rain in the Ohio Valley, and the timing is such that it’s very vast and quick, there’s only so much that we could address in our reservoir. Again, this is a system, so the system consists of reservoirs on our tributaries. We were able to hold water back and release when it’s safer.

We have floodways. Floodways do two things: They temporarily reduce the stress in a particular area by allowing water to either move into and out of a system or it – into and then back into the system. In the case of – where New Madrid was to reduce stress, we moved the water out of the system and then back into the system. Down in the New Orleans area and with Bonnet Carre in Morganza, we were moving water out of the system. And then we have, obviously, levies and floodwalls.

What you saw is – early in May was a tremendous amount of pressure on a small city that we have called Cairo, and other cities in the lower Upper Miss, and also the Lower Ohio – Paducah and Kentucky and a couple others. To reduce that stress, and so that we didn’t have uncontrolled release, what we did was we ensured we had spoken to all the state and local authorities, and then we determined that the best thing to do to reduce that stress was to operate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. That floodway almost immediately dropped the water levels two to three feet over several days that reduced the stress on the town itself and many citizens. And it also impacted citizens also that we need to work with the state on helping and ensuring that in the long term that we reset that area. But it was one of those tough choices we had to make, as we had to make some tough choices as we went down – as the crest moves down the system itself.

As we move further south, we next opened the Bonnet Carre spillway. There is a certain amount of water that we can safely pass in New Orleans. When it got to the point where it was greater than that capacity that we felt we could pass New Orleans, we needed to open up the Bonnet Carre. That was opened slowly. It doesn’t have any particular folks or anything in that spillway for a short spillway moving right in to Lake Pontchartrain. We opened that up slowly over time and now it’s opening – keeping the water passing New Orleans at about the same level and a safe level.

The next tough choice we had was whether to open more dams or not, because obviously, it’s an area where we would flood lots of folks in a rural setting. But the choice was to continue to pass water at dangerous levels and high stress on the levee system past Baton Rouge and New Orleans or move that – some of that water to the Atchafalaya as planned. So what you saw, as I mentioned a little earlier, is that choice was made, we started to open up very slowly, give people time, work with the state. The state and parishes had a very good system of informing its citizens and taking care of its citizens and also had some places mandatory evacuation, and in other places it was voluntary.

But the key now is we want to continue to work closely with our federal, state, and local partners to ensure that we continue to protect lives and reduce risks to property as we pass this historic amount of water. That – I think that gives you a good background of what’s happening right now and what happened so that when we could – now if you have any questions, I’m available.

QUESTION: It’s Mira Oberman with Agence France Presse. One of the things that I was hoping you could do is – there’s kind of a few areas. One would be an update on the situation with the refinery, kind of what the forecast is for how they could be impacted, how much water is going to be there, and what’s being done to protect any kind of spillage from the refineries into the floodwaters and go elsewhere.

And then the other thing – and I can ask you later; I know it’s hard to do two questions at once – but the other thing was just kind of getting a better idea of what it looks like down there and your forecast for how high the water is going to end up being in some towns, how long it will take to go away.

MG GRISOLI: I think I’m going to need a little bit more information on your question on the refineries. I’m not really sure what portion of the river system that there are refineries that are in jeopardy.


MG GRISOLI: There are many refineries, obviously, along the Baton Rouge to New Orleans area that could be endangered if we didn’t start diverting water, but I’m not familiar with one that is inundated.

QUESTION: Yeah. That was my question. I’ve been away for a few days, and last week I was looking into that, and so I was just checking to see if anything has happened so far, if you’re aware of any refineries that have been impacted or that are in the danger zone as the spill waters and as the crest kind of moves down toward the Gulf. I mean, if you’re not – if things are fine now because of the Morganza, then that answers the question.

MG GRISOLI: That was one of our concerns. I mean, that’s an area where if you put too much stress on that industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, we would be concerned. There are power plants and refineries, et cetera, that are secondary to protecting lives, but that also would be hazardous as far as the health, et cetera, if they were inundated.

Now, your second point was: What does it look like and how long, et cetera? And as you’ve probably heard, this is a marathon; this is not a sprint. Mother Nature has a vote, so how long this will take, we’re not totally sure, but I will offer that it will be several weeks before the water starts going down. As you see in Cairo, it’s down to about 52, it’s up to 61. It’s already down about nine feet. We’re able to – at the same time we’re doing that, we’re releasing our reservoir. So we’re trying to bring them down to less than 25 percent, as far as being full, so that we’re able to manage another large rainfall if it comes.

The folks in the Atchafalaya Basin – it will vary as far as the amount of water that they have. There’s some inundation now coming back up on both sides of the river. There are river levees, and then there are the Atchafalaya levees. What you’re seeing now is the water is coming down past where the river levees are, and it’s coming back, in some cases, up along the Atchafalaya levees themselves, and there’s some inundation. Due to the dry soil, we’re very lucky that it’s a lot lower and slower than we thought it would be, but it’s still going to be feet. And in some places, it will be extremely high and other places, it will be less.

What we want to do is continue to ensure that the citizens are informed and they’re checking with their local officials to make sure that they move if their local officials think they need to move.

QUESTION: It’s Suzanne [from the UK Guardian] here. Thank you for doing this. I just wanted to – I’m a little confused about the Morganza and with the number of gates and with the dry soil. Are you anticipating – there’s been much less water flooding some of these areas in the flood plain than anticipated. How much water do you anticipate going into those areas now, in the days ahead? Are you going to be opening new gates? Are you going to see an escalation of water now that the soil has absorbed that early on rush?

MG GRISOLI: The opening of the gates is all based on the hydrology and amount of water that’s passing Red River Landing. What we want to do, simply, is make sure that the amount of water is no greater than 1.5 million cubic feet per second. And --


MG GRISOLI: And the way we do that is open a few more gates, or we could close some gates. And so as you see the crest come down – it’s at Vicksburg now – as the crest passes Red River Landing and we move water either through Morganza or down to New Orleans, the water will start receding. And that’s when we would start closing gates versus it’s less of a level somewhere in the valley itself. The amount of feet and the amount of water being absorbed by the soil will not affect the amount of gates being open. It will strictly be try to keep it at 1.5, and once we could keep it at 1.5 by closing some gates, we’ll start considering closing gates so that you would have less water moving into the Atchafalaya and help those people out as soon as we can.

So we’re keeping a very close eye on that, and as the crest passes, there might be some opportunities, and that’s what we’re looking for, are those opportunities. But we’ll have to do it --

QUESTION: But – I maybe didn’t make myself clear. Are you now revising your forecast for the predictions of how much land was going to be flooded by the opening of the Morganza? Because that seems to have been looking at the idea that you’d open a majority, the 120-something gates, and now there’s only 16 or 17 open.

MG GRISOLI: This is – it’s very difficult given the impact and the amount of water moving and the conditions that are on the ground. We’re trying to work daily with the local officials to tell them where the water is, how much more is coming. And we’ve got to work together on where we think it’s going to flow. I mean, it’s very flat there, and the water takes different approaches, and there’s a lot of land that has changed. There are other structures there, there are a lot of crawfish ponds, there are other things that have changed a little bit of the flow rate. And so we’ve got to almost do that daily. So overall, changing our maps, probably not. Working very closely with the local officials has been the best thing we can do.

QUESTION: Can you talk to – what’s the current crest date in New Orleans? Because those seem to be moving around a little bit.

MG GRISOLI: The crest would have been in New Orleans on about the 23rd of May. We’re managing the flow now. The crest of 1.25 should stay steady, based on the flood waves at Bonnet Carre and Morganza. So it’s crested. It’s at 1.25. We just want to keep a steady state now, and get the crests that comes to Red River Landing, which is just north of Morganza – that’s where we make the decisions and move water. So (inaudible) hopefully anymore – 1.5 going to New Orleans or – excuse me, past Baton Rough and no more than 1.25 going past (inaudible) until the water’s all passed.

QUESTION: [Ikeuchi Takao, Kyodo News] I’m just wondering if there is any estimate on how big the – sorry, how big and (inaudible) affects that may – crop product like corn or wheat?

MG GRISOLI: Oh, that’s a great question. I will offer that the way it’s impacting it is not only in some of the land that was inundated – for example, the areas in Missouri and other farmland. That has yet to have been determined. The – our U.S. Department of Agriculture will work on that piece and take a look at what the impact. The other impact is on river traffic, which we had to restrict in some places and close in others. So the time of delivery has changed, so that will increase the cost of some of the products and commodities. So there are really two factors right now, one being worked by the Department of Agriculture, and the other is just being able to move the product on the river has changed based on the conditions itself.

QUESTION: And some scientists say that flooding is related to climate change, even though it’s not a direct cause of the flood. So could you comment on that?

MG GRISOLI: I will offer that there are many factors changing, and we always try to consider all these factors. We are now looking at the system itself, we’re looking at climate change. When we rebuilt the flood protection system, hurricane protection system in New Orleans, we took in consideration the climate change and the differences in storm surge, et cetera, based on new modeling to ensure we were at the new levels.

I think that the world is going to be challenged with the question you just asked me, and how do we adjust our fixed structures around the world to address some of these natural changes over time. And a lot of nations are struggling with that now. And it really comes down to resources and how much of a change do you want to make, and so those are some of the things we have to consider as we look at our structures.

QUESTION: It’s Mira with AFP. As a follow-up to that question, there’s also been a lot of discussions about – like you said, the choices you have to make between urban areas and floodways and the development of towns on floodplains. So I’m just kind of curious if the Corps is going to be reexamining, based on this flood. And I don’t know if you guys have any impact on what gets developed where, but the kind of warnings that go out to people of “If you want to build your house here, chances are it’s going to flood at some point in the next 10 years.”

MG GRISOLI: Floodplain management is a very challenging area to manage for any nation, because as a nation develops the structures to reduce the risk to its citizens, the citizens tend to want to then build in that particular area. The challenge is, is that the risk is never completely gone. Both have (inaudible) risks. And what’s the right balance? As you see, many of our federal agencies, whether it’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, who works insurance for floodplains, or the Corps that builds the structures and sometimes non-structure solutions, were always trying to balance the development of the flood protection, and the development of cities or (inaudible) areas because there is a fine balance between those two, and there are always going to be some tension.

QUESTION: [Suzanne Goldenberg, UK Guardian] So just to get back to the current situation on the ground, so the crest is currently at Vicksburg, and it’s moving its way down to the Gulf of Mexico. And I looked at your map, and it says in some places, we could see water that’s 20 – I’ve got to think (inaudible) PowerPoint (inaudible) – 20 or 30 feet. And I’m just kind of wondering, I mean, are there towns where – I’ve seen all the pictures, towns of houses that are – water’s up to the rooftops. How many structures – do you guys have forecasts for how many structures are going to be lost by this flood, how many have been lost? It’s just been very difficult for me, as I’m trying to follow this flood through so many different states, to get a big picture of what the actual impacts --

MG GRISOLI: You’re asking a great question, and I will tell you, as we evaluate and assess with our other federal and state partners – especially the states, they’ll have a better listing of exactly how many structures in their state, what was impacted, and how are we going to help these citizens versus a federal agency. Well, we have rough numbers, but you’d probably have to go to the states to get a better number.

QUESTION: I’d be happy with a rough number – (laughter) – at this point because there’s a lot of – there’s just so many states along the Mississippi.

MG SMITH: I don’t have a rough number at this time that I could share.

Event Concludes

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