This weekend, decisions were made. In Louisiana, the US Army Corps of Engineers doesn't need to blow up levees along the Mississippi River, because there are already flood control structures in place to handle the overflow.
For the Bonne Carre spillway, this decision is easier made. Water flows from the River into Lake Pontchartrain. This might raise the level of the lake a few feet, causing some problems to those who live in low lying areas. It also affects the fisheries, as that much freshwater can change the habitats of lake and sea life very rapidly. When making the call between threatening the levees and industrial infrastructure downriver, that's not a difficult choice to make. The Bonne Carre has been open for some time now.
But those costs are minor ones compared to the opening of the Morganza. The Morganza spills Mississippi River water into the Atchafalaya River, and into communities that aren't as well-protected as Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The water is going to back up tributaries and bayous significantly (as it did on the Mississippi far upriver) and flood a lot of homes even far away from the banks of the river.
Hence the long wait to open Morganza. Not only did the USACoE have to give those people time to evacuate, or protect their property with sandbags, but it had to make a case that leaving the Mississippi River flowing at its current volume could do massive damage to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the nation's shipping and oil refining infrastructure. With a flood this big, it doesn't really matter how strong the levees are in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Those costs were weighed both ways, and the decision was made. Morganza opened this weekend. Acadiana is preparing for high water, again, and Louisiana is preparing to bear the brunt of high human costs associated with flooding.
The political implications boil my blood. Demagouges and populist sentiment won't wait long to point out that rural communities in "Real America" were sacrificed for cities and "elites" as if that makes any sort of sense in Louisiana's case. The same people would be screaming about the high price of gasoline if the refineries were allowed to flood for a month. There will - of course - be a racial undertone to it, as insidious as that is. I've already heard the phrase "President Obama Doesn't Care About White People," in reference to Kanye West's infamous response to flooding after Hurricane Katrina.
But what won't be talked about - again - is why this is happening. Why is the river flooding so badly up and down the Mississippi River? Why did decisions like this have to be made? How can our current infrastructure and zoning be made to more effectively mitigate this sort of thing? Why did most flooding come from tributaries? Why is the Louisiana coast disappearing? Why are areas so much more prone to flooding today?
Because - pay attention - this is what it looks like when the system we currently have works. This is the plan. This is our nation's cost of doing business the same way we always have. Two observations come from that:
One - if you think this cost too much, imagine if the system wasn't working as planned. I'll give you a hint, it would be 2005 flooding expensive.
Two - if you want a better flood control policy in this country, it is going to cost a lot of long term money. You have to weigh that against long-term costs.