Will the Mississippi River break free to the west and abandon Baton Rouge and New Orleans?
Some experts fear it could happen, according to a comprehensive article by the Baton Rouge Advocate's Steve Hardy.
Such an event would be a catastrophe for the nation's economy, Hardy explains. The ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans would be devastated, agricultural production destroyed, and New Orleans' water supply lost. The town of Morgan City, La., would be washed away.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers's Old River Control Structure keeps the Mississippi flowing to Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Hardy explains. The Mississippi wants to move west and take a more direct route to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya River channel.
Completed in 1963, the Old River Control Structure keeps 70 percent of the Mississippi's water going to Louisiana's two major cities. The other 30 percent goes to the Atchafalaya through Old River, an abandoned channel of the Mississippi. If the river ever breaks through the control structure, the water would rush into the Atchafalaya, abandoning the present channel.
The structure nearly gave way during the Mississippi flood of 1973, and a couple of experts fear that a similar flood could cause a breakthrough. The Corps of Engineers, blamed for New Orleans' Hurricane Katrina devastation, dismisses the concerns. After the 1973 flood, the control structure was upgraded, but the improvement has weakened over the years, exacerbated by the river's process of depositing silt.
While Hardy's article reaches a consensus that a river break is unlikely, Trump budget cuts will hamper the Corps' maintenance of the control structure. And no one really knows what will happen if another major flood occurs, such as those of 1927 and 1973.
New Yorker writer John McPhee wrote the definitive work on the effort to control the Mississippi in his "The Control of Nature" a few decades ago. Hardy gives a valuable update to McPhee's work.