The Mississippi River is expected to reach official flood stage this weekend, and while the levees will hold the water back, the military has begun following flood fighting protocol.
The river is forecast to continue a steady rise for several more days, beginning to level off next Thursday with a crest of around 38 feet, right at the cusp of moderate flood stage. As of Friday afternoon, the river stood at 34.2 feet at Baton Rouge. Minor flood stage is 35 feet, and the levees are 47 feet high.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun its lowest level of response. That includes weekly inspections of the levees, and a requirement that anyone within 1,500 feet of the levees apply for special permission to perform construction.
Farther upstream, officials told the Monroe News Star that they're thinking about limiting access to the levee in the area around East Carroll, Madison, Tensas, Concordia and Avoyelles parishes. Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said his agency hasn't had talks about doing the same in the district that covers the Baton Rouge and New Orleans region.
Walking on the levees isn't really a problem, but when drivers take their trucks or ATVs up to view the river, the vehicles can cause ruts, Boyett explained. But that's not currently a concern around Baton Rouge.
"Everybody's invited to go look at it. ... It is beautiful when it gets flowing," parish emergency preparedness director Clay Rives said.
Baton Rouge is also fortunate because it doesn't have a lot of development in the batture, the land between the river and the levee, he continued. Nevertheless, the weekly inspections include talking to property owners to make sure equipment and livestock stays out of harm's way, Boyett said.
Mississippi state officials have prohibited sportsmen from hunting on some lands near the swelling river until the water subsides. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has not issued a similar order but is keeping an eye out, spokesman Ed Pratt said.
As the water rose last spring, Angola inmates worked to shore up a partially collapsed stretch of the levee near the state penitentiary, and Baton Rouge public works crews piled Hesco baskets on top of a low portion downtown near North Street.
Officials said stress from high water could expose some areas that need additional attention, but at present the flood control system seems ready. The Hesco baskets installed last year are still in place, and city officials aren't aware of any particular spots that might see sand boils, areas where water pushes under or through the levee, Rives said.
Boyett urged anyone who encounters a sand boil to contact authorities.
The bigger concern at present is navigation. The U.S. Coast Guard can restrict nighttime river traffic or require vessels to use a guide ship when the Mississippi runs high, but agency officials did not return calls seeking comment Friday. Nearby, Pointe Coupee Parish closed False River to boaters due to high water Friday.
Louisiana isn't alone in getting drenched, said meteorologist Gavin Phillips of the National Weather Service's Slidell office. The whole Southeast, including the Tennessee and Ohio river valleys have been soaked due to persistent low-pressure systems.
"It's just been a lot of heavy rain between Atlanta and Cincinnati," he said.
Now that water's all draining down the Mississippi. However, the main flood season generally begins around March to May, when snowmelt and April showers pour down the river. It's still too early to predict what the spring will bring and whether Louisiana will have to respond with measures such as opening the Morganza or Bonnet Carré spillways, Phillips and Boyett said.