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Mississippi flooding brings focus to environmental faculty expertise

May 27, 2011

Bonnet Carre

The Bonnet Carré Spillway diverts floodwaters from the Mississippi River in an effort to lessen the damage caused by an unusually severe spring flood season. / ANDRE BOURDIER

Swollen by weeks of heavy rain and snowmelt upstream, the Mississippi River finally has reached its crest throughout most of the south, leaving behind countless flooded homes and devastated farmland. As officials continue to monitor the levee system, strained from saturation and sustaining the maximum pressure it was designed to withstand, the story remains front-page news and Tulane law scholars continue to be media targets.

Throughout much of May, members of the law school faculty have faced a flood of inquiries pouring in from national news outlets including CNN and NPR, USA Today and the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Times. Closer to home, local radio, television, and print correspondents also have brought focus to Tulane Law School faculty expertise, paying particular attention to those specializing in the field of environmental law.


Tulane environmental law professor Oliver Houck says it is comforting to know "the floodway system works." / TULANE UNIVERSITY

Risky Business
Tulane law professor Oliver Houck has long been involved with the Bonnet Carre spillway (just north of New Orleans), one of only two pressure relief points along the lower Mississippi. In the 1970s and ’80s, Houck led a fight to prevent real estate development in the spillway zone, arguing that settlement and civilization along the area, which he says the corps designed to be flooded intentionally, would put further pressure on those in charge of deciding if and when to open the flood gates.

Since the opening of the Morganza Spillway thirteen days ago, Houck’s argument has hit uncomfortably close to home.

“[The pressure on the levees] is going to remain high for weeks and weeks. And that’s the scare,” the Washington Post quoted Houck as saying ( In Louisiana, a choice between two floods , May 2011). “‘All it takes is one weak spot’ in a levee to flood New Orleans.”

Houck says the lesson to learn from this historic event is simply that “nature needs space.”

“If we allow [space] along big rivers and along hurricane-vulnerable coasts, it is a win-win. We don’t get hurt – we still enjoy the riverine and coastal resources,” Houck stated, noting he is skeptical anything will change. “There remains a lot of money to be made in building in risky places … particularly when the government provides you with levees, pumps, flood insurance, and disaster relief. In effect, we are subsidizing disasters.”

One River, Two Floods
Mark Davis, senior research fellow and director of the Tulane Institute for Water Resources Law and Policy, is no stranger to water resource management. Prior to joining Tulane Law School in 2007, Davis served fourteen years as executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, where he helped shape programs and policies at the state and federal level to improve the stewardship of the wetlands and waters of coastal Louisiana. His expertise, experience, and genuine commitment to the viability of coastal Louisiana have made him a media favorite, specifically in recent weeks.


Mark Davis, director, Tulane Institute for Water Resources Law and Policy, advises,"We have two floods to fight and we need to manage the river to do both." / TULANE UNIVERSITY

Since the first phone call, Davis’s message to reporters has been consistent: “This is really the story of one river and two floods.”

“Coastal Louisiana was built by the Mississippi River over the last 7,000 years. And ever since we took the river out of that landscape, we've watched it disappearing,” Davis said in an interview with CNN Anchor Don Lemon (May 14, 2011). “And really over the last 100 years we've lost roughly 2,000 square miles of land. That’s a permanent flood.”

Flirting with Disaster
Davis emphasizes the need to bring the river back into the landscape in a controlled fashion where it actually can nourish the swamps and marshland, which serve as barriers, protecting areas like New Orleans. In an interview with local radio talk show host Spud McConnell, WWL, Davis pointed out the obvious—that no one can make the water go away. He says the real question, therefore, is where to direct the water and how quickly to do it. 

Government response is another factor, and one Professor Houck says he will monitor closely.

“The story yet to be told is whether Congress will react to all of this simply by throwing money at it, or, rather, by taking a larger look at the Mississippi River, the coast, and the flood insurance program, and begin to do something different,” said Houck. “We need very big disasters for change to happen, particularly now when the politics are so divided. This is a big event, but it is not a big disaster. Thank God. And thank a capable floodway outlet system.”

Similar to the media flocking to experts at Tulane Law School, Davis stresses, “There is a reason people work their entire lives understanding the physics and the science behind events such as these.” Nonetheless there are no guarantees, he says, and the future still holds many unknowns.

“We’re all like actors in a play that’s still being written,” Davis told WWL’s McConnell. “We have to realize that this river is a part of this coast, and it’s a tool as well as a source of trouble.”

UPDATED 10-Jun-11  7:08:27 PM

Read more from Tulane's New Wave:  Lesson From the Flood , Tues, June 7, 2011;  One River, Two Floods , Fri, June 3, 2011

USA Today,
  Flood-piled silt poses shipping threat along Mississippi , Thur, June 9, 2011
"The river dumps sediment every year near its mouth, and each year the Army Corps of Engineers must dig out enough of it to allow ships and tankers to pass through safely," says Mark Davis ...


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