America's Achilles' heel: the Mississippi River's Old River Control Structure

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 5:20 PM GMT on May 13, 2011

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America has an Achilles' heel. It lies on a quiet, unpopulated stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, a few miles east of the tiny town of Simmesport. Rising up from the flat, wooded west flood plain of the Mississippi River tower four massive concrete and steel structures that would make a Pharaoh envious--the Army Corps' of Engineers greatest work, the billion-dollar Old River Control Structure. This marvel of modern civil engineering has, for fifty years, done what many thought impossible--impose man's will on the Mississippi River. Mark Twain, who captained a Mississippi river boat for many years, wrote in his book Life on the Mississippi, "ten thousand river commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or define it, cannot say to it "Go here," or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at." The great river wants to carve a new path to the Gulf of Mexico; only the Old River Control Structure keeps it at bay. Failure of the Old River Control Structure would be a severe blow to America's economy, interrupting a huge portion of our imports and exports that ship along the Mississippi River. Closure of the Mississippi to shipping would cost $295 million per day, said Gary LaGrange, executive director of the Port of New Orleans, during a news conference Thursday. The structure will receive its most severe test in its history in the coming two weeks, as the Mississippi River's greatest flood on record crests at a level never before seen.


Figure 1. Two views of the Mississippi River. Left: the meander paths of the Mississippi over time, as published in "Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River" (Fisk, 1944). Right: The Army Corps of Engineers' view of Mississippi River peak flow rates during a maximum 1-in-500 year "Project Flood" (U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, 1958.) The places outlined in red are where the Corps has built flood control structures capable of diverting a portion of the Mississippi's flow.

A better path to the Gulf
The mighty Mississippi River keeps on rollin' along its final 300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans--but unwillingly. There is a better way to the Gulf--150 miles shorter, and more than twice as steep. This path lies down the Atchafalaya River, which connects to the Mississippi at a point 45 miles north-northwest of Baton Rouge, 300 river miles from the Gulf of Mexico Delta. Each year, the path down the Atchafalaya grows more inviting. As the massive amounts of sediments the Mississippi carries--scoured from fully 41% of the U.S. land area--reach the Gulf of Mexico, the river's path grows longer. This forces it to dump large amounts of sediment hundreds of miles upstream, in order to build its bed higher and maintain the flow rates needed to flush such huge amounts of sediment to the sea. Thus the difference in elevation between the bed of the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya--currently 17 - 19 feet at typical flow rates of the rivers--grows ever steeper, and the path to the Gulf down the Atchafalaya more inviting. Floods like this year's great flood further increase the slope, as flood waters scour out the bed of the Atchafalaya. Without the Old River Control Structure, the Mississippi River would have carved a new path to the Gulf in the 1970s, leaving Baton Rouge and New Orleans stranded on a salt water estuary, with no fresh water to supply their people and industry.

History of the Old River Control Structure
The Mississippi River has been carving a path to the ocean since the time of the dinosaurs, always seeking the shortest and steepest route possible. Approximately once every 1000 years, the river jumps out of its banks and carves a new path. In John McPhee's fantastic essay, The Control of Nature, we learn:

The Mississippi's main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier--arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river's present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it.

For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya's conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as "the German coast," and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina--with an infrastructural concentration equaled in few other places--it was often called "the American Ruhr." The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.


The Atchafalaya steadily took more and more of the Mississippi's water to the Gulf of Mexico during the 20th Century, until by 1950, it had captured 30% of the great river's flow, becoming the 4th largest river in the U.S. by volume discharge. The Army Corps of Engineers stepped in, and in the late 1950s began construction of a massive structure that resembled a dam with gates to control the amount of water escaping from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya. This "Low Sill Structure", completed in 1963, consisted of a dam with 11 gates, each 44 feet wide, that could be raised or lowered. The entire structure was 566 feet long. A companion "Overbank Structure" was built on dry land next to the Low Sill Structure, in order to control extreme water flows during major floods. The Overbank Structure had 73 bays, each 44 feet wide, and was 3,356 feet long. The total cost of the two structures: about $300 million.


Figure 2. Aerial view of the Mississippi River's Old River Control Structure, looking downstream (south.) Image credit: U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

The flood of 1973: Old River Control Structure almost fails
For the first ten years after completion of the Old River Control Structure, no major floods tested it, leading the Army Corps to declare, "We harnessed it, straightened it, regularized it, shackled it." But in 1973, a series of heavy snowstorms in the Upper Midwest was followed by exceptionally heavy spring rains in the South. The Mighty Mississippi rose inexorably until the flow rate at the Old River Control Structure reached 2 million cubic feet per second--twenty times the flow of Niagara Falls--and stayed there for more almost three months. Turbulence from the unprecedented flows through the Low Sill Structure scoured the foundation and destroyed a 67-foot-high wing wall that guided water into the structure. Scour holes as big as a football field developed upstream, downstream, and underneath the structure, exposing 50 feet of the 90-foot long steel pilings supporting the structure. The structure began vibrating dangerously, so much so that it would slam open car doors of vehicles parking on top of Highway 15 that crosses over the top. Emergency repairs saved the structure, but it came every close to complete failure.

The flood of 1973 permanently damaged the Low Sill Structure, forcing the Corps to build additional structures to control future great floods. The first of these structures was the Auxilliary Control Structure. This 442-foot long structure, completed in 1986, consisted of six gates, each 62 feet wide, and cost $206 million to build. Joining the mix in the late 1980s was a 192-megawatt hydroelectric power plant, build at a cost of $520 million.


Figure 3. The flow of water in the Mississippi River as of Friday, May 13 (red line) has exceeded 2 million cubic feet per second, and was approaching the all-time record (dashed blue line.) Image credit: USACE.

The Old River Control Structure's greatest test: the flood of 2011
Flow rates of the Mississippi at the latitude of the Old River Control Structure are expected to exceed the all-time record on Saturday, giving the Old River Control Structure its greatest test since the flood of 1973. Since there are now four structures to control the flooding instead of just the two that existed in 1973, the Old River Control Structure should be able to handle a much greater flow of water. The flood of 2011 is not as large as the maximum 1-in-500 year "Project Flood" that the Old River Control Structure was designed to handle, and the Army Corps of Engineers has expressed confidence that the structure can handle the current flood. However, the system has never been tested in these conditions before. This is a dangerous flood, and very high water levels are expected for many weeks. Unexpected flaws in the design of the Old River Control Structure may give it a few percent chance of failure under these sorts of unprecedented conditions. While I expect that the Old River Control Structure will indeed hold back the great flood of 2011, we also need to be concerned about the levees on either side of the structure. The levees near Old River Control Structure range from 71 - 74 feet high, and the flood is expected to crest at 65.5 feet on May 22. This is, in theory, plenty of levee to handle such a flood, but levees subjected to long periods of pressure can and do fail sometimes, and the Corps has to be super-careful to keep all the levees under constant surveillance and quickly move to repair sand boils or piping problems that might develop. Any failure of a levee on the west bank of the Mississippi could allow the river to jump its banks permanently and carve a new path to the Gulf of Mexico. I'll say more about the potential costs of such an event in a future post.

According to the latest information from the Army Corps the Old River Control Structure is currently passing 624,000 cubic feet per second of water, which is 1% beyond what is intended in a maximum "Project Flood." The flow rate of the Mississippi at New Orleans is at 100% of the maximum Project Flood. These are dangerous flow rates, and makes it likely that the Army Corps will open the Morganza Spillway in the next few days to take pressure off of the Old River Control Structure and New Orleans levees. Neither can be allowed to fail. In theory, the Old River Control Structure can be operated at 140% of a Project Flood, since there are now four control structures instead of just the two that existed in 1973 (flows rates of 300,000 cfs, 350,000 cfs, 320,000 cfs, and 170,000 cfs can go through the Low Sill, Auxiliary, Overbank, and Hydroelectric structures, respectively.) Apparently, the Corps is considering this, as evidenced by their Scenario #3 images they posted yesterday. This is a risky proposition, as the Old River Control Structure would be pushed to its absolute limit in this scenario. It would seem a lower risk proposition to open the Morganza spillway to divert up to 600,000 cfs, unless there are concerns the Corps has they aren't telling us about.


Figure 4. Kayaking, anyone? The stilling basin downstream of the Low Sill Structure of the Old River Control Structure, as seen during major flood stage of the Mississippi River on May 10, 2011. The flow rate is 2 - 3 times that of Niagara Falls here. Video by Lee Alessi.

Recommended reading
John McPhee's fantastic essay, The Control of Nature

Jeff Masters

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Quoting PcolaDan:


Still just one gate. You can see in the video this picture came from.

That's the plan. They announced at the press conference that they would open one gate that would be least susceptible to scouring. Tomorrow they will open another. Scouring should be less an issue as the water level on the low side rises.

Chicklit had a link to a pre-opening news conference in post 368 going over these details. The news conference at that link has been replaced with video of the opening of the first gate. The news conference is still available on that web page as another link, though.
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Link
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456. beell
Quoting WatchingThisOne:


Looks like the plan may have changed, which makes me wonder how the Old River control structure is doing upstream.



Still just over 100% (108%) of the Project Design but probably a good ways from the theoretical limit mentioned in Dr. M's post.

USACE Current High Water Flows
Saturday, May 14th

click for full size graphic
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 145 Comments: 16920
455. Skyepony (Mod)
The size of that standing wave just below Morganza is huge.. Paddle me crazy but somebody has got to be itching to go play in that.

Looks like some made a run at Bonnet Carre Spillway in 2008.

"People do crazy things," he said of a past opening. "I saw a couple of people go through the gates in a kayak. They didn't realize that the water goes straight down. They were lucky that somebody was on the other side and pulled them out."

The Coast Guard was called in to rescue some kayakers who got into trouble in the treacherous waters when the spillway was last opened in 2008.
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Quoting WatchingThisOne:


Looks like the plan may have changed, which makes me wonder how the Old River control structure is doing upstream.



Still just one gate. You can see in the video this picture came from.
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http://www.aprsfl.net/radar/index.php If you look at that radar image and match up the cell e4 on NExrad on here. There is a hook on the system heading my way.
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I am looking at both cells mentioned before, they seem to be flopping back and forth between hail and almost tornadic like
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Morganza wont help the ORS though.
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Quoting WatchingThisOne:


Looks like the plan may have changed, which makes me wonder how the Old River control structure is doing upstream.



yep!
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Quoting cajunkid:
they are only going to open one bay today and another tomorrow.


Looks like the plan may have changed, which makes me wonder how the Old River control structure is doing upstream.

Edit: only one gate is open - see larger pic in post 461.

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Member Since: September 16, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 1496
It is raining a little here in Weston, I am just south of I75/Alligator Alley... You can see the storms to the North of me..
but I will be driving home in that in about 15 mins.

I understand Coral Springs has gotten some stormy weather, my house is just a few miles south of Coral Springs...
Member Since: August 29, 2005 Posts: 302 Comments: 40955
Quoting iahishome:


Hi Shen,

First bay was opened about 3:30 Central time. They'll open 1 or 2 more tomorrow.
thanks
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Quoting WoodyFL:
A SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 700 PM EDT FOR CENTRAL BROWARD COUNTY...

AT 624 PM EDT... A LINE OF SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS WAS REPORTED WITH QUARTER SIZE HAIL. THESE STORMS WERE LOCATED ALONG A LINE EXTENDING FROM 12 MILES NORTHEAST OF INTERSECTION I-75 AND U.S. 27 TO MILE MARKER 30 ON ALLIGATOR ALLEY... MOVING SOUTHEAST AT 15 MPH. DOPPLER RADAR WAS ALSO ESTIMATING 50 MPH WIND GUSTS WITH THESE STORMS JUST NORTH OF ALLIGATOR ALLEY AND EAST OF U.S. 27.

SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS CAN PRODUCE VERY STRONG WINDS IN EXCESS OF 60 MPH... HAIL UP TO GOLF BALL SIZE... DEADLY LIGHTNING... AND VERY HEAVY RAINFALL. STAY INSIDE AWAY FROM WINDOWS UNTIL THE STORM HAS PASSED.

IN ADDITION TO LARGE HAIL AND DAMAGING WINDS... CONTINUOUS CLOUD TO GROUND LIGHTNING IS OCCURRING WITH THIS STORM. MOVE INDOORS IMMEDIATELY! LIGHTNING IS ONE OF NATURES NUMBER ONE KILLERS. REMEMBER... IF YOU CAN HEAR THUNDER... YOU ARE CLOSE ENOUGH TO BE STRUCK BY LIGHTNING.




There are two tornadic looking cells on radar right now, however I am not seeing anything in the way of the cell in mention.
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A SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 700 PM EDT FOR CENTRAL BROWARD COUNTY...

AT 624 PM EDT... A LINE OF SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS WAS REPORTED WITH QUARTER SIZE HAIL. THESE STORMS WERE LOCATED ALONG A LINE EXTENDING FROM 12 MILES NORTHEAST OF INTERSECTION I-75 AND U.S. 27 TO MILE MARKER 30 ON ALLIGATOR ALLEY... MOVING SOUTHEAST AT 15 MPH. DOPPLER RADAR WAS ALSO ESTIMATING 50 MPH WIND GUSTS WITH THESE STORMS JUST NORTH OF ALLIGATOR ALLEY AND EAST OF U.S. 27.

SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS CAN PRODUCE VERY STRONG WINDS IN EXCESS OF 60 MPH... HAIL UP TO GOLF BALL SIZE... DEADLY LIGHTNING... AND VERY HEAVY RAINFALL. STAY INSIDE AWAY FROM WINDOWS UNTIL THE STORM HAS PASSED.

IN ADDITION TO LARGE HAIL AND DAMAGING WINDS... CONTINUOUS CLOUD TO GROUND LIGHTNING IS OCCURRING WITH THIS STORM. MOVE INDOORS IMMEDIATELY! LIGHTNING IS ONE OF NATURES NUMBER ONE KILLERS. REMEMBER... IF YOU CAN HEAR THUNDER... YOU ARE CLOSE ENOUGH TO BE STRUCK BY LIGHTNING.


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Quoting ShenValleyFlyFish:
What gives with Morganza?


Hi Shen,

First bay was opened about 3:30 Central time. They'll open 1 or 2 more tomorrow.
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What gives with Morganza?
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Severe event going on in South Florida, we have two tornadic cells heading towards the Palm beach and Coral Springs area at this present time. The cell already has a severe thunder storm warning attached to it.
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Quoting sammywammybamy:
:) Im Happy to Tell you some Good News... 1) We have High Rain Chances through the end of next week. 2) This is the Start of Florida's Rainy Season.


we do too! So with a 40 - 50% of rain for the next 5 days in a row.. surely we will get something!!!

I always felt once the rains come we will have a very wet rainy season this year...

just getting scary and dry for now.


Hi everyone...been watching the news on the flooding as much as I can.

thank you to everyone here who are contributing the information. I appreciate it very much!
Member Since: August 29, 2005 Posts: 302 Comments: 40955
its going to get real interesting at the Old River Structure next week. Its a bottle neck with more water headed that way than in 1973. I was there two days ago, and its impressive to say the least.
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New Orleans: 19.5' to Cresting near 16.9'

da's good to read
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435. beell
Some differences starting to creep into the latest Mississippi River forecasts today. First one is from this morning for comparison. The second coincides with the opening of the Morganza-almost to the minute.

Presumably, today's crests at Reserve and New Orleans are evidence of 100% operation of Bonnet Carre. Donaldsonville and Baton Rouge stages to remain somewhat static for the same reason until the flow through Morganza is increased.

RIVER FORECAST...LOWER OHIO/MISSISSIPPI RIVER...
LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER FORECAST CENTER
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE SLIDELL LA
1143AM CDT Sat May 14 2011

click to enlarge river forcast text



RIVER FORECAST...LOWER OHIO/MISSISSIPPI RIVER...
LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER FORECAST CENTER
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE SLIDELL LA
337PM CDT Sat May 14 2011




Comparing the crest forecasts from a week ago to the latest, some lower crests forecast from Natchez all the way down.

Natchez: 65.5' to 64.5'
Red River Landing: 65.5' to 64.5'

Baton Rouge through New Orleans also down for reasons already covered.

Baton Rouge: 47.5' to 45'
Donaldsonville: 36' to 33.5'
Reserve: 28' to Cresting near 24'
New Orleans: 19.5' to Cresting near 16.9'
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 145 Comments: 16920
they are only going to open one bay today and another tomorrow.
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thanks, CRS

any word on how many bay doors have been opened so far?
Member Since: August 13, 2005 Posts: 177 Comments: 26645
Quoting sammywammybamy:
South Palm Beach here.... NO RAIN (0.00) yet... it's hanging W... We will see the second line move through tonight and more lines forming tonight.


sure hope so.. got to not give up!
Member Since: August 29, 2005 Posts: 302 Comments: 40955
Quoting sammywammybamy:
Pea-Sized Hail in Northen Palm Beach County.... Dark Dark Clouds to the NW .... This is the First Line... the Second much larger line is Back near Tampa heading SE. Florida Rainy Season has Begun


Quoting PalmBeachWeatherBoy:
Hail falling northern royal palm beach


Glad Palm Beach is getting something, you all are as bad off as we are here in Broward...

but still nothing in Broward, it is all pulling to the NE and not dropping this far south...

Maybe we will get lucky later tonight.

May 6-7th I had .25" total in my guage for those two days.. nothing this week and been a long time before that since we've gotten anything.


Member Since: August 29, 2005 Posts: 302 Comments: 40955
Well guys, here in Port Charlotte we've gotten .26" .. Not terrific, but better than nothing.
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Quoting msgambler:
So true, and as much as I hate that these folks loose what they have worked so hard for, I can only imagine what would happen if nothing was done and NOLA was to take on all this water. It would take forever to pump all the water out. May never get it all out either. I jsut send out my prayers to any and everyone in it's path.


We thank you for your prayers!
Glad to help try and save NOLA and Baton Rouge they dont need this agaian.
I just hope those draniage leves hold up
If not I might be in need of some floaties.
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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUYiQukaqsE


AP Video of Morganza first opening
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Hail falling northern royal palm beach
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Quoting entropy101:
Yes, but if the flow rates and flow mass are high, the effects can be very dramatic. Water can carve out gullies with a depth of over 10 meters in no time at all and move very large boulders if the conditions are right.

And if the scour protection around a structure is insufficient, it can do extreme damage, including structural collapse.

Yeah, ask that truck driver that was on a bridge on the New York Thruway when it collapsed because of scouring.
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Quoting blsealevel:


It truely is history; I say that with a tear in my eye
at least it isnt salt water this time;
3 days and counting
So true, and as much as I hate that these folks loose what they have worked so hard for, I can only imagine what would happen if nothing was done and NOLA was to take on all this water. It would take forever to pump all the water out. May never get it all out either. I jsut send out my prayers to any and everyone in it's path.
Member Since: February 27, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 1125
Quoting emcf30:
scouring

Removal of soil or fill material by the flow of floodwaters
Yes, but if the flow rates and flow mass are high, the effects can be very dramatic. Water can carve out gullies with a depth of over 10 meters in no time at all and move very large boulders if the conditions are right.

And if the scour protection around a structure is insufficient, it can do extreme damage, including structural collapse.
Member Since: May 13, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 4
Quoting msgambler:
Your to kind Ally. Us Bama folk gotta stick together


yes we do! we be like family..lol
Member Since: August 3, 2006 Posts: 133 Comments: 20639
Quoting Patrap:

Saturday marked the first time in history that all three floodways built by corps after 1927 flood -- the Morganza Floodway, the Bonnet Carre Spillway and the Birds Point floodway in Missouri -- have been in operation at the same time, according to the corps.




Morganza Floodway opens to divert Mississippi River away from Baton Rouge, New Orleans
Published: Saturday, May 14, 2011, 3:00 PM Updated: Saturday, May 14, 2011, 3:19 PM


It truely is history; I say that with a tear in my eye
at least it isnt salt water this time;
3 days and counting
Member Since: August 23, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 1918
Nice post by Quinta Scott on the opening of the Morganza floodway.
Member Since: October 4, 2004 Posts: 205 Comments: 15288
Quoting msgambler:
Thanks emcf, I was pretty close to being correct.


Your welcome, I knew what it was but looked it up to post it. Did not realize there were so many different definitions of the work especially this one. Which I am sure thousand of animals in the path of rising waters are doing as we speak.4. scours (used with a sing. or pl. verb) Diarrhea in livestock.
Member Since: August 7, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 1957
Mine says buffering..:P
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Quoting msgambler:
I lost it about 20 min. ago and never went back to see if it was back up yet.


heh heh heh
Member Since: August 13, 2005 Posts: 177 Comments: 26645
I lost it about 20 min. ago and never went back to see if it was back up yet.
Member Since: February 27, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 1125
Now water puppy, What kind of question is that to ask?
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anybody got video?
Member Since: August 13, 2005 Posts: 177 Comments: 26645
Thanks emcf, I was pretty close to being correct.
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God bless google search
Member Since: August 7, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 1957
Your to kind Ally. Us Bama folk gotta stick together
Member Since: February 27, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 1125

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