Michael Bay's Scenario

Last year I drew a comic about the oil spill in which Michael Bay spun an over-the-top worst-case disaster scenario. One of the panels was actually slightly more plausible than the others. It was based on a real disaster which almost happened in 1973, and in two weeks it may come closer to happening than ever before.

I learned about this from John McPhee’s The Control of Nature (adapted from this article), a book that my mom gave me as a kid (Happy Mother’s Day!).  I’m not any sort of an expert on the subject, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Every thousand years or so, the lower Mississippi changes course.  It piles up enough silt at its delta that it ‘spills over’ to a new shortest path to the ocean. At times, the outlet has been anywhere from Texas to the Florida Panhandle.

Since the early 20th century, the Mississippi has been trying to change course again—sending its main flow down the Atchafalaya river, which offers a much shorter, steeper path to the ocean.  The Army Corps of Engineers was ordered by Congress to keep that from happening.  The center of their effort is the Old River Control Structure, which limits the flow down the Atchafalaya to 30%.

Every now and then there’s a massive flood which stresses the system. The fear is that if the Mississippi ever broke through the ORCS and the main flow was captured by the Atchafalaya, it would be very hard or virtually impossible to return it to its old route. This would devastate the people and industries around in Baton Rouge and New Orleans who depend on the river (as if they haven’t had enough problems lately).  This almost happened in 1973, when a massive flood undermined the structure; this was the subject of John McPhee’s book.

They’ve since strengthened the structure, but the coming flood is quite a bit larger than the one in 1973.  In order to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge, they have to send some of the floodwaters down the Atchafalaya.

Here is the working plan for routing the water from a nightmare flood:

The Mississippi River Commission document outlining the plan is here.

This plan, put together after the devastating 1927 floods, is based around the estimate of the largest possible flood the Mississippi could ever experience.  In theory, the system is capable of handling such a flood, although much of it has never been put to the test.

The current flood moving down the Mississippi is going to stress this system to near its limit.  Here’s a version of that map with the current flow rates, with the approximate expected coming flood shown at the top:

This is based on the diagram at the ACOE Mississippi River page, which is updated daily with new flow rates.

The floods above the system are expected to crest 6′ higher than in the 1927 flood, the highest in recorded history, and 7′ higher than the 1973 flood that almost destroyed the ORCS.  Here’s the gauge just above the structure as of noon on May 8th:

The current Natchez gauge can be seen here.

The Morganza spillway has only been opened once (to take the stress off the failing ORCS in 1973), and then only partly. It’s fairly clear at this point that the Morganza spillway and the Bonnet Carré spillway will both be fully opened to route the flow away from New Orleans (which is expected to crest just a few feet below the tops of the levees there).

I have no idea how likely the Old River Control and Morganza structures are to fail, or whether a rerouting of the Misssissippi through a new channel would be irreversible.  You can read some speculation on this here.

Additional resources:

Wunderground blogger Barefootontherocks maintains a page full of resources on the current Mississippi flood, and there’s a lot of information in the comments.  The excellent Jeff Masters will probably have a post on the subject in the next few days. You can see more gauges and a ton of information at the NWS page on the lower Mississippi.

Michael Bay can be reached here.

205 replies on “Michael Bay's Scenario”

  1. The numbers are one thing, but being down here and able to drive to the spillways and watch the water flow is awesome. Both scary and beautiful at the same time. my wife rhetorically asked how much of the river was flowing through the Bonnet Carre as we were driving over it. She wasn’t impressed or grateful that I was able to answer her accurately.

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  2. Hey! Like many people, I’ve always loved the comics, but I’m thrilled to discover another Mississippi/Old River Control junkie. I’ve cited that New Yorker article many a time and have often said that it’s not a matter of IF the Mississippi will eventually change course and “jump channels” to the west, it’s a matter of WHEN. One of my first thoughts post 9-11 about a follow up terrorist target was “I really hope the security around Old River Control has been notched up to about a zillion right now”

    I see you’ve also discovered the wonderful hydrograph pages at the NOAA. One can spend hours tracking floods all the way down a watershed there.

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  3. I moved to Baton Rouge in the 1980’s and lived blissfully ignorant of all of this until I read McPhee’s book about five years ago. I ran around for about a month accosting all of my Louisiana native friends about why they had not told me about the Old River Control Structure, and why we were not discussing it every time it rained. No telling when it will happen, but as the man says, the River’s got nothing but time.

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  4. Maybe I’m being a dick for thinking this, but the artificial diversion of the Mississippi is a part of why the city’s below sea level.
    I don’t want New Orleans to be financially destroyed by not being a port, but aren’t we making the city less safe by continuing this untenable engineered solution?

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  6. I know this makes me cold to say, but in every possible way it seems like God, Nature and Fate all have a clear, clear message: people shouldn’t live in the Delta. Why won’t anyone listen?

    When people act like they are so brave for moving back I shake my head. It’s like people in Pennsylvania who are proud to keep moving back into floodplains. It’s sick. Humans think we are entitled to live everywhere.

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  7. The fear is that if the Mississippi ever broke through the ORCS…

    …the local dragons would resort to feasting upon maidens.
    …rainbows and touchy-feely teddy bears would return to the land.
    …there would be a severe shortage of brutish mercenaries.
    …they would retreat to our lands and eat us. Raw.

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  8. 68u76 is a spambot, but I find this almost forgivable due to the presence of a new Japanese-style emoticon: o(∩_∩)o

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  9. I’m pretty sure Michael Bay wouldn’t be interested in this one, sadly, because there are no major gasoline explosions in a flood. Maybe we could put another major oil spill inside this flood, then compress it with some unknown intervention by aliens, who then set the oil on fire, which causes Duke Nukem to be burned alive on his raft made of live alligators, so that he is unable to destroy the aliens. Then, a large explosion aboard the alien ship causes it to land inside the flaming oil flood, where it is opened by the government (after the fire destroys the city) only for the government to find the dead bodies of Unicorns inside, who are guarded by Terminators. Michael Bay FTW! Contact me via ROBLOX PM or by my email, which you will figure out because you are Michael Bay and you can magically use the plot device of “A Computer!!!” to figure out.

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  10. The pessimistic assumption that any and every human alteration of nature is “untenable” never ceases to disappoint me. Look, guys, changing things to be more hospitable to us is what we do. It’s how we’ve survived for the last hundred thousand years.

    As far as I know, the only thing making it likely that the river will jump to the Atchafalaya is their difference in height, which increases continually as more silt gets deposited and not dredged. There’s no obvious reason you can’t keep building, though. We can certainly build (much!) faster than nature can. New Orleans has an even bigger problem… they’re under the SEA level! And yet, they’ve managed to keep the Atlantic Ocean out of their homes most of the time over the last century. And the Netherlands have been successfully inhabited for millennia, despite the occasional dike failure!

    Sure, there’s constant risk of flooding in these places, but so what? Land is precious in an overpopulated world. How much of the planet’s landmass is in no danger of any natural disaster? You can make these same kinds of “it’s not IF, it’s WHEN” comments about Japan and its Earthquake/Tsunami dangers, too. For that matter, every town on the Gulf Coast plays the lottery every hurricane season, and the countries in the Middle East live under a constant threat of war by living so close to the world’s “holiest” area.

    Life is risk. Stand up, go get a cement mixer, and just do your best to control it. Or, give up and go find somewhere you like better, and let those who are willing to try do their best.

    Sometimes I feel like the only person left on Earth who still believes in the potential of technology.

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  11. Xezlec:
    Then something like Katrina happens again, and you have the recurrent problem of: how do you drain the floodwaters out of a city that’s at a lower altitude (to the tune of several metres) than the major river delta and ocean that surrounds it?

    As I understand it, the dried out areas of the Netherlands weren’t quite as extreme as that – they were more marshland than floodplain, and are at least slightly above average sea level, both of which are why they were drained by the simple, near-mediaeval expedient of digging a load of drainage ditches to the sea and shutting the lock-gates at high tide.

    Yes, we can – at vast expense – build our way out of pretty much any problem along these lines. The issue seems to be that no matter how unreasonably huge we make our dykes and sea walls (and really, they’re never much more than “just a little higher than the last flood level” because of economics), nature will both erode them away, and eventually, usually sooner than anyone expects, send an even bigger flood, sea surge, onshore-blowing storm or outright class-A1 hurricane to FUBAR your babel tower. You’ll have a cycle of build higher – be safe for a while – get flooded anyway. Remember “Sin” in FFX? A bit like that. And all the while you’re having to throw good money after bad continually dredging and repairing the levees.

    Our better option these days, no longer needing to stay within a couple hour’s walk of a river or other major water source in order to simply stay alive and irrigate our crops (as it would be fetched on foot) is to leave the floodplains well alone, keep them as either conservation areas (good for getting tourism money in almost any weather) or incidental farmland for drier crops when the water table is low, and stuff like rice when it’s high; instead building our homes on slightly higher land (in this case, at least 60ft above the riverbed!) and just laying a few pipelines to move the water to where we want it to be, instead of us going to it. Look at the example of the Everglades, which have a vaguely similar geography. You’d be considered insane to try draining them and building on there, then stubbornly maintaining defences against the sea and the weather – and making a half-assed job of it to boot. But as a conservation area the glades have a beautifully rich biodiversity, little impact on human life with the raising and lowering of the water level, and attract tourist income for what would otherwise probably be fairly poverty stricken locals… even when it’s bucketing down with rain. I should know, I’ve been on that coach, and then the swamp boat… it was good fun. And the rain woke the crocs up.

    Maybe the best thing for everyone would have been to let the river change course naturally in the 30s, and have probably a fairly short period of readjustment and adaption to it’s effect on human habitation… and by now it would have been in place for better than 70 years and, on average, have caused FAR less trouble.

    As Britain starts to run out of regular, non-“green belt” (protected against development) space to build homes, and brown-fields somehow inevitably become expensive apartment complexes, our cheap-starter-home developers have started to do something that wouldn’t have been dreamt of 100 years ago – building on and filling up the floodplains. With rather predictable results: 10-15 years after the estate’s been built, one of the occasional periods of exceptional, sustained rainfall comes along… the water goes where it’s always gone, because there was no budget or even any intent to build defences along with the houses (and they’d have just moved the problem on)… and what would previously have just been a case of some playing fields or grazing pastures being inundated for a few days becomes a major event where a few thousand people have to leave their homes and lose half their possessions… along with the effect on businesses that have sprung up to serve them. Meanwhilst, if said development is an extension of an older town, you see the much older buildings, from a simpler, supposedly less well educated time, sitting pretty huddled up on a subtle island of higher ground you might not have even noticed, but for the lake now surrounding it. It was particularly stark in Cockermouth and Gloucester.

    Much criticism was made of the planning authorities for even countenancing such construction, at the time of these floods, and there’s a small chance we may end up with legislation outright banning it if another such event occurs any time soon. The original talk was of requiring flood control measures to be included as part of any floodplain building plan, but the growing vibe seems to be that the relevant govt dept sides with Dr Who on this one – “water always wins” – and prefers the passive, cheaper, less disruptive, more environmentally sensitive approach.

    Anyway, it seems that NO and Louisiana in general had a lucky escape this time, with the implemented controls working well enough that the event didn’t even make international news (hence my only hearing about it some weeks later) and containing the peak to a “mere” – though still record-setting – 61.9 feet. Or in other words, approx 18ft (the height of a typical house…) above what it currently is, and 24ft above the “action level” where the most low lying and low value land starts to flood. Who knows what the “next” surge will be like, though? Maybe enough to finally overtop those towering levees that carry the river around the city like some bizarre interstate?

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  12. (Also, returning briefly to the Netherlands – a similar thing has been done in the British “fens”, the flatlands of East Anglia and the east coast north of there to the Humber, which were historically a great expanse of marsh, now valuable farmland with the occasional village or medium size town on the rare bits of higher ground – and with the drains actually forming neo-rivers with their own names… that run arrow-straight and square-banked for miles towards the sea, with roads following their course.

    It is famously flat (“# I come from the fens, where no-one has toboggans… #”) and must occasionally flood in some way, given that the times I’ve driven through there the main roads often seem to be quite precariously perched on the top of high, artificial embankments much like the levees… but I couldn’t tell you the last time I heard of a report of major, human-life-disrupting flooding around there. Either it’s never severe enough that a theoretical notable town built on this supposed floodplain is threatened, and/or no-one’s been daft enough to do so and therefore it’s a non-issue.)

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  13. * looks at more ”local” coverage of the event *

    hmmm …. maybe it did make the international news, but i wasn’t paying enough attention? there was something about midwest floods, but i coulda sworn that was further north (and west), and earlier in the year than May.

    After all, even though it was nowhere near as bad as predicted, there was a certain amount of devastation…

    captcha: avercel shū. Quit it with the non-ascii characters already, i’m getting tired of opening charmap!

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  14. tahrey:

    “Then something like Katrina happens again, and you have the recurrent problem of: how do you drain the floodwaters out of a city that’s at a lower altitude…”

    New Orleans is inhabited again, you know. So they apparently managed to do it. (There are these things called “pumps”…)

    “the dried out areas of the Netherlands weren’t quite as extreme as that – they were more marshland than floodplain, and are at least slightly above average sea level”

    Wikipedia says 25% of the land and 21% of the population are below sea level. And they do sometimes have dyke failures and floods. But they soldier onward, like the Japanese after the quake. They began introducing wind-powered pumps to drain some areas as early as the 13th century! Hence the old saying “God created the world but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

    “Yes, we can – at vast expense – build our way out of pretty much any problem along these lines.”

    Vast expense? The 150,000 square miles of floodplain in the US — about 1/25 of the country’s available land — is worth probably about 100 billion dollars (and unmovable property on it, probably a lot more). You’re talking about throwing it all away to save around 2 billion a year in damages (and prevention is typically cheaper than damages, so building better levees should be even better). That’s only a 2% rate of return — not even as high as inflation. Think about it. If it really were uneconomical, people wouldn’t live there!

    “…nature will both erode them away…”

    Sure, over millions of years! We build embankments all the freaking time. There are probably hundreds in your town. Are they hopeless to maintain? Of course not. Actually, it’s quite easy. Erosion is slow as heck.

    “…and really, they’re never much more than ‘just a little higher than the last flood level’ because of economics…”

    People aren’t usually as foresighted as they should be, but the above is quite an exaggeration and you know it. Yes, it’s a learning process, but you can’t learn if you’re afraid to ever try anything. Just as the Dutch gradually learned to do things like break their land into compartments to limit the damage of a levee breach, we may eventually start doing the same. The levees in New Orleans are stronger now too. That doesn’t mean they’ll never break again, but it will probably be a long while.

    “Our better option these days… is to leave the floodplains well alone… instead building our homes on slightly higher land…”

    You speak as though the US is a sparsely-populated wilderness just waiting to be settled. Every square inch of usable area is already occupied. There are already other people’s homes and farms on the “drier” land. Land is precious.

    “…no longer needing to stay within a couple hour’s walk of a river or other major water source in order to simply stay alive and irrigate our crops…”

    You think people live near coasts and rivers solely because of irrigation? The main reason why we live near water is trade. Ships are still the cheapest way to get stuff between continents. It still makes sense to put cities on ports. Barges still chug down rivers, too. Water is also used for food, sport, and culture in general. If you think the Cajun side of my family is going to ditch the bayou because of your paranoia about floods, you’re nuts.

    “Look at the example of the Everglades, which have a vaguely similar geography. You’d be considered insane to try draining them and building on there…”

    Wikipedia says HALF of the everglades were drained and are now agricultural or urban areas.

    “the relevant govt dept sides with Dr Who on this one – ‘water always wins’”

    This is exactly the kind of fatalism that ticks me off. It only wins when we give up. Millions of people have lived along coasts and in floodplains for hundreds of years. Experience shows that humans can always win, if we want to. Like I said in my last comment, there are natural disasters EVERYWHERE. People cope.

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  15. Also, since you seem to have a weird idea of what the Netherlands is like, here are some photos:

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  16. The numbers are one thing, but being down here and able to drive to the spillways and watch the water flow is awesome. Both scary and beautiful at the same time. my wife rhetorically asked how much of the river was flowing through the Bonnet Carre as we were driving over it. She wasn’t impressed or grateful that I was able to answer her accurately.

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  17. Hey! Like many people, I’ve always loved the comics, but I’m thrilled to discover another Mississippi/Old River Control junkie. I’ve cited that New Yorker article many a time and have often said that it’s not a matter of IF the Mississippi will eventually change course and “jump channels” to the west, it’s a matter of WHEN. One of my first thoughts post 9-11 about a follow up terrorist target was “I really hope the security around Old River Control has been notched up to about a zillion right now

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  18. * looks at more ”local” coverage of the event *

    hmmm …. maybe it did make the international news, but i wasn’t paying enough attention? there was something about midwest floods, but i coulda sworn that was further north (and west), and earlier in the year than May.

    After all, even though it was nowhere near as bad as predicted, there was a certain amount of devastation…

    captcha: avercel shū. Quit it with the non-ascii characters already, i’m getting tired of opening charmap!

    Like

  19. Both scary and beautiful at the same time. my wife rhetorically asked how much of the river was flowing through the Bonnet Carre as we were driving over it. She wasn’t impressed or grateful that I was able to answer her accurately

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  20. Did you know there is an excellent apparent correlation between world population and numbers of square feet of forest that’s been cut down since 1750?

    And that there’s also the an excellent apparent correlation between those two and the mean global anomaly trend?

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  21. The Mississippi can change course and the Port of New Orleans will continue to be viable. Salt water from the gulf would fill in, ships could continue to follow the route. The major drawback is that New Orleans would lose its source of drinking water.

    Rivers take the most direct and efficient course to an outlet. It’s more complicated than elevation, distance to the outlet is the bigger issue in this case. The dredging that keeps the river’s current path viable when compared against its shortest path is not without consequence. The dredging is a major contributor to coastal erosion — an enormous problem for Louisiana. Of course, if enough erosion occurs, then the river’s current route will once again be the shortest path to the gulf.

    Previous comments about man controlling nature and nature being uncontrollable might both be correct: nature might give us control over the manner in which it defeats us.

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  22. Business English are one thing, but being down here and able to drive to the spillways and watch the water flow is awesome. Both scary and beautiful at the same time. my wife rhetorically asked how much of the Business English was flowing through the Bonnet Carre as we were driving over it. She wasn’t impressed or grateful that I was able to answer her accurately.

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  23. I’m pretty sure Michael Bay wouldn’t be interested in ielts, sadly, because there are no major gasoline explosions in ielts. Maybe we could put another major oil spill inside this flood, then compress it with some unknown intervention by aliens, who then set the oil on fire, which causes ielts to be burned alive on his raft made of live alligators, so that he is unable to destroy the aliens. Then, a large ielts aboard the alien ship causes it to land inside the flaming oil flood, where it is opened by the government (after the fire destroys the city) only for the government to find the dead bodies of Unicorns inside, who are guarded by Terminators. Michael Bay FTW! Contact me via ielts or by my email, which you will figure out because you are Michael Bay and you can magically use the plot device of “An IELTS!” to figure out.

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  24. Eric. You know what’s awesome? That we have the science to be able to predict the height and extent of a flood like this weeks in advance, and the technology to do something about it.

    CNC Machining center

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  25. I am from the Netherlands and Xezlec is right; some parts in the west/northwest of the country are considerable below sea level. And because of a combination of constantly pumping the water away and geological activity, the nortwest is still sinking, while the southeast of the country is rising.

    I think the Netherlands are somewhat comparable to the Mississipi, but also a little different. Yes, the Netherlands is also a river delta area. Basicly the whole country is one big delta of rivers, most importantly Rhine (Rijn) and Maas. The rivers have been quartered in along pretty much their whole length within the Netherlands, with dikes of (I’m estimating) 5-10m high on both sides of the river. This is to protect the inhabited area’s on both sides of the river against flooding, not so much because they are below sea level (because especially in the provinces Limburg, Noord-Brabant and Gelderland the land is above sea level) but because in winter, there’s a huge supply of water because of all the snow and rain coming from Germany, France and the Alps. Especially the river Maas brings this risk to the Netherlands. Because of these river dikes, the risks of the rivers suddenly changing course are minimal. The dikes upkeep costs are incredibly expensive though, and every few decades the government decides they have to be another meter higher, which is even more expensive, and creates other problems because in a lot of places, there are houses and other buildings situated against or on top of the river dikes.

    In the last few decades the discourse has shifted towards creating as much emergency overflow areas as possibly; basicly natural (uninhabited) areas and areas of farmland that can be flooded to decrease the pressure of the river whenever the water is extremely high.

    The parts of the Netherlands that are below sealevel are mainly in the provinces of North- and South Holland and Zeeland, which are in the west/northwest, and they are mainly at risk from flooding from the sea, not from the rivers. For instance in North Holland there aren’t even any major rivers. They are protected from the sea by the sea dikes, which are even higher than the river dikes. These sea dikes are part of the Deltawerken (delta works), a huge scale projected that was started after the flooding disaster of 1953 of the province of Zeeland; the last major natural disaster, and one of the biggest natural disasters to ever occur in the Netherlands. These works also include some huge scale civil works like dams etc. in Zeeland to protect it from the sea.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meuse_(river)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rijn
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta_Works

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  26. Honestly, I was hoping the alligator-filled wall of flame was the slightly plausible event. Then Michael Bay could make a movie off of it.

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