published Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

A time of testing

What’s good for residents of Baton Rouge and New Orleans is not so good for fellow Louisianans who reside in the Atchafalaya River basin. Opening the Morganza Spillway to divert water from the surging Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya River basin appears to have reduced pressures on levees that help protect the state’s two largest cities. The cost of doing so, however, is extraordinarily high. The diverted water is likely to flood vast farm acreage and tens of thousands of homes and businesses, bringing considerable pain to those in the lightly populated basin.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to open the spillway for the first time since 1973 was a difficult one, but it seems to have produced the desired result. The spillway release, a National Weather Service spokesman said Tuesday, led to the Mississippi River cresting sooner and at lower levels at Baton Rouge and New Orleans than predicted, thus reducing the chance of widespread flooding there.

That’s little consolation to those who live in the Atchafalaya basin, where waters are rising. Residents of Butte Larose, a town of about 600 homes about 35 miles southwest of Baton Rouge, are typical. They spent the weekend evacuating, after being told to expect a river level of about 29 feet. A more recent forecast put the crest at about 27 feet. The difference is of little consequence to residents.

Even at 27 feet, their homes could be under at least seven and perhaps 10-15 feet of water. Moreover, officials say it might be several weeks before the river drops below flood stage and those who have evacuated can return to their homes. Butte Larose residents don’t expect to find much left when they do come back. “There’s nothing we can do,” one resident told a reporter. “We just pray for the best.”

Government officials are doing what they can, helping with evacuations, providing shelters and working to protect areas where rising waters are or likely to become a danger. There’s been little discussion of long-term assistance. That should come soon.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will have to ask the federal government for a major disaster declaration to receive significant assistance. That’s standard procedure. The governors of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia did so in the wake of last month’s string of tornadoes. Given the scope of the flooding, President Barack Obama should honor such a request without delay. Without it, many of those hit hardest by the disaster will find it impossible to rebuild their lives.

For the moment, though, Louisianans, especially those in the Atchafalaya region, can only watch the waters rise. A time of testing is upon them; the time for recovery remains, at best, weeks, months or even years ahead.

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