In an agonizing trade-off, Army engineers said they will open a key spillway along the bulging Mississippi River as early as Saturday and inundate thousands of homes and farms in Louisiana’s Cajun country to avert a potentially bigger disaster in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
About 25,000 people and 11,000 structures could be in harm’s way when the gates on the Morganza spillway are unlocked for the first time in 38 years.
Opening the spillway will release a torrent that could submerge about 3,000 square miles under as much as 25 feet of water but take the pressure off the downstream levees protecting New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the numerous oil refineries and chemical plants along the lower reaches of the Mississippi.
The corps said it will open the gates when the river’s flow rate reaches a certain point, expected Saturday. But some people living in the threatened stretch of countryside — an area known for small farms, fish camps and a drawling French dialect — have already started fleeing for higher ground.