Changes pending on operating Morganza floodway structure _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- Morganza flood control structure

Officials on Friday continued to monitor water levels near Morgan City and neighboring communities and prepared for floods from a rising Atchafalaya River and the many connected waterways in eastern St. Mary and St. Martin parishes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, kept Tuesday as the date when the Morganza Spillway flood control structure could be opened, which would send Mississippi River waters into the Atchafalaya Basin. The Atchafalaya River is expected to crest Jan. 23 well above flood stage, even if Morganza is not opened.

Duval Arthur Jr., St. Mary Parish’s director of homeland security and emergency preparedness, said workers in Morgan City and across the Atchafalaya River in Berwick have closed some of the lowest-sitting seawall gates. In the next weeks, before the river crests, all the gates in Morgan City and Berwick will be closed.

Arthur said he doesn’t think the rising water will top the seawall, but the bloated waterways connected to the Atchafalaya could swell and flood some areas.

“It could certainly create some backwater flooding,” he said.

Currently, Morgan City water department employees are keeping an eye on the intake lines that supply the city’s drinking water. “They’re producing good water, but you have to clean the filters out,” Arthur said.

The Louisiana departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality have been helping oil and gas companies prepare wells located in the Basin for higher water.

And the Corps, which will make the decision on opening Morganza, has been preparing to sink a mobile flood control structure — a 300-foot barge — in Bayou Chene on Saturday.

The Coast Guard earlier this week notified mariners that the bayou will be closed starting Saturday to sink the barge.

In 2011, the last time the Morganza was opened to relieve a full and raging Mississippi River, workers sank the barge in Bayou Chene.

The project at the time was credited with diverting floodwater into nearby marshes and keeping the water away from low-lying communities near Morgan City.

St. Mary Parish Sheriff Mark Hebert said in a news release that the department’s Marine and Patrol Division will monitor water levels, and deputies will enforce the sheriff’s off-limits declaration for parish levees.

Anyone caught on the levees without official clearance could be prosecuted.

In eastern St. Martin Parish, officials are opening sandbag depots and have scheduled a meeting with residents in Stephensville on Monday to discuss possible flooding. Residents are urged to monitor the parish’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Facebook page.

On Avoca Island, to the east of Morgan City, National Guard troops with the 256th Infantry Brigade and the 225th Engineering Brigade set up portable Hasco flood barriers to divert the predicted high water, National Guard Maj. James Williams Jr. said. The Guard is using the Amelia Recreation Center as a base and for overnight stays.

Corps and St. Mary Parish officials last week told residents they should be ready for water levels at least as high as those in 2011, even if the Corps does not open Morganza.

“This is going to be an unknown,” said Arthur, the emergency preparedness chief for St. Mary.

When the Corps opened Morganza in 2011, the swollen Mississippi River was a stark contrast to the lands outside of the levees, where a prolonged drought had dried the land that lies in the Basin spillway.

“A lot of that water (in 2011) came down and got absorbed by the spillway,” Arthur said.

This year, that same ground is saturated, he said. “All it’s going to do is pile up.”