Yesterday, the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge crested at a little over 44 feet, nearly 10 feet above flood stage, and barely a foot under the last record crest—which happened in May of 2011.
Half our nation dumps its rainwater and snowmelt into the Mississippi, and the river swells each spring, creeping slowly up levees and halting water traffic. In 2011, when the river crested at an astonishing 45 feet; emergency sandbags were placed on the levee here in Baton Rouge. Due to a couple partial spillway openings, we didn’t receive any flooding from the river in downtown. But places in Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas did, and the ensuing floodwaters caused $2.8 billion in damage.
In comparison, the historic flood of 1927 made the river rise to 47.28 feet: only 2 feet above the 2011 flood, and only 3 feet above this spring’s crest. The devastation caused by 1927’s river flood—still the worst in our nation’s history—sparked the federal government to task the Army Corps of Engineers with the responsibility of taming the river. They built the world’s longest system of levees and spillways in response.
There are usually 11 steps visible on the levee downtown, which lead down to a good 10 feet of dry bank on the water’s edge. Yesterday, there were only 5 steps visible.
These spring crests are getting higher every year. Everyone here knows it. Around springtime, we check the news to see where the river is that day. We wonder aloud if they’re going to open The Spillway this year: aka, the Morganza Spillway, which diverts water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya basin between Baton Rouge and Lafayette. Every year, if local government hasn’t placed a ban on levee foot traffic (a measure that has become increasingly common in the past decade,) kids run down the steps to the water’s edge and run back up as the murky, muddy water laps at their toes.
When the waters recede, driftwood is left both on the banks and clinging to dock supports. The red letters that spell the city’s name on the side of the levee: “BATON ROUGE” slowly become visible again. Spillway engineers breathe out a sigh of relief and are glad that they didn’t have to flood the crop fields and hunting camps in the Atchafalaya Basin to save the capital area. Then, we forget about the floods till next spring.
It’s no secret that the South is conservative and skeptical of climate change. After all, the Exxon refinery is one of the largest employers in East Baton Rouge parish. Everyone knows someone who works in the petrochemical industry. It’s our lifeblood. When people dare to question Exxon, as they did recently when the cash-strapped school board wondered if the tax subsidies the corporation was receiving were too generous… the response is swift and vicious. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. We don’t have time for that climate change nonsense when families have to make a living.
And so: the water rises, and the water falls, and we move on.
The thing is, we all know somebody who flooded.
Whether it be Katrina, or Gustav, or the August floods of 2016, land loss along the coast, or just your run-of-the-mill spillway opening or bayou back-up… we’ve all either gutted homes or filled up sandbags at the fire station or bought truckloads of bottled water or went out into flat-bottomed boats to rescue friends, neighbors, and families. We’ve all stared into the deep freezer and realized that shit, we forgot to get a bigger cooler like we said we were going to do last year, and have to pick out what’s likely to spoil first. And then we’ve gone a few humid, miserable hours without the backup window unit so that the generator (if we were lucky enough to have one) could power the freezer long enough for it to make enough ice to fill the ice chest.
We’re no stranger to floods.
This weekend, Caleb and I rode our bikes on the levee. A little ways past LSU, I stopped and looked out across the deceptively slow eddies of the Mississippi. Then I turned and looked at the farmland on the other side of the levee. I imagined what it would be like if there was no levee, if the river could stretch out and spread for miles. It wasn’t hard to imagine. I remember when the Comite did the same thing to my childhood home, which lies 20 minutes north of Baton Rouge.
My father-in-law told me where, at the height of that flood, the road out of town had ended and the water began. After the waters receded, I drove to where that water line had been, and then tracked my odometer as I drove down to the river. Up a steep, 10-foot bank and 2 miles up the road it had spread—a river that usually only comes up to your knees at its deepest. When I walked down the the riverbank, an alien landscape carved by the rapids that had been there only days before: there were water lines etched into tree trunks far, far above my head.
Yesterday, as the river crested, I stared out at the Mississippi river and knew. The thaws are coming sooner. The snowmelt is faster. The rains and the snow that created the wettest year on record (yes—it was 2018) will all find their way into the Mississippi River.
One day, spillways be damned, it will breach the levee.
One day, it will either climb high enough to spill over, or more likely, test for weak points in the concrete and sod. Prying streams of water will worm their way through tons of dirt and leak out the other side. Their tenacity will widen cracks, find weaknesses, and spread. Will it be a sudden burst of water, as if from a fire hose, or will it seep and gurgle and steal up our streets in the dead of night?
What sound do levees make when they collapse? Would you even be able to hear it over the rushing water?
When we first visited our home downtown, I remember, quite vividly, having to look up at it. Not only did FEMA place it as zone X on the flood map—”protected by levee;” it said—our home sits on a natural bluff that rises to a comforting 55 feet above sea level. It rests on a retaining wall-sealed embankment, which gives us another six feet or so. In addition, it’s also placed atop three-foot piers. If we flood, the whole of Baton Rouge is under. The water won’t come to us first. We’ve taken the high ground.
We’d lived on the bluff before, during that flood in 2016. When the cell towers went down and we couldn’t communicate with our families, the bluff, like an island, became our staging ground. We gathered cleaning supplies from our apartment and I made as much food as I could fit in our only ice chest, to bring to the family members stranded by the flooding. We tried to drive to our childhood home—it normally would’ve taken us 20 minutes. But each bridge we came to was washed out. We drove north, trying every bridge along the way, picking our way around flooded streets until, three hours later, we made it to his parent’s house. We’d passed boats floating in people’s front yards, trucks overturned in ditches, homes with furniture floating out their doors, and water, always more water, running through it all.
With all the recent data pointing to irreversible climate change happening within the next 20 years, I know that we will see more severe storms and “unprecedented” flooding in the years to come. But to be clear: none of it is unprecedented. We know it’s coming. We’ve known for decades.
The river will rise. And rise. And rise.