Louisiana closes levees to traffic

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 24, 2005

[1/24/05] As a lingering river crest nears, officials in Louisiana have closed the Mainline Mississippi River levee to authorized traffic only.

The Mississippi was at 43.6 feet on the Vicksburg gauge this morning, up three-tenths of a foot since Sunday morning. Flood stage at Vicksburg is 43 feet.

The good news is that the crest, when it arrives, may be up to a foot lower than expected.

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“We are looking at about 45 feet Saturday,” said Jeff Graschell, a forecaster at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center in Slidell, La.

He said the Mississippi has received less water than expected from the Arkansas River, as well as the Upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

The forecast center is still predicting a slow fall following the crest. A winter rise of this magnitude is rare and will likely be followed by a spring rise related to snowmelt in the Mississippi’s upper reaches. The flooding now follows a series of record rains across the nation’s midsection.

Reynold Minsky, president of the 5th Louisiana Levee District, said this morning roads on top of the levees from the Louisiana-Arkansas line all the way to the Old River Control Structure have been closed. Parishes involved are East Carroll, Madison, Tensas and Concordia.

“The levees are like jelly,” Minsky said of the situation in Louisiana.

The reason, he said, is all the rain that fell over the area in late 2004 and early 2005. It just saturated the levees and the land surrounding them.

“People just don’t need to be driving on the levees right now,” Minsky said, adding that only vehicles from the levee board and the Corps of Engineers should drive the levees.

He added that some sections of the levee are public roads and he can’t ban traffic, but he urged people not to travel those sections unless absolutely necessary.

The Louisiana levee district is also having trouble with sand boils, Minsky said.

“There are three in East Carroll and a couple in Madison and a couple in Tensas,” he said.

Sand boils form when the water pressure is higher on one side of the levee than on the other. Water from the high pressure side works its way through the soil under the base of the levee and bubbles to the surface. The normal practice is to build a ring of sand bags around the boil until the water runs clear.

Minsky said the levee board will probably begin placing sandbags around some of the boils today if the Corps of Engineers advises it.

Even though sand boils can weaken a levee, Minsky said they are not worried about that happening.

“The levees are in good shape,” he said.

The Mississippi Levee Commission, based in Greenville, is having much less trouble, said Peter Nimrod, the commission’s chief engineer.

He said there are a couple of sand boils near Buck Chute at Eagle Lake and several near Black Bayou, a couple of miles north of Greenville.

“We are checking them twice a day,” Nimrod said.

While levee officials are asking people not to drive on the levees in Louisiana, there are no plans to close the levees on the Mississippi side, Nimrod said.

The Steele Bayou Control Structure, which was closed more than a week ago, is holding 3.3 feet of flood water out of the South Delta, said Robert Simrall, chief of the Water Control Branch of the Vicksburg District Corps of Engineers.

The water level on the land side was 88.6 feet mean sea level this morning, no change from Sunday. On the river side, the level on the river side was 91.9 feet msl, up .5 foot.

With a predicted crest on the Mississippi and a slow fall following, Simrall said the gates at Steele Bayou probably won’t be opened until between Feb. 6 and Feb. 12.