Monday, May 13, 2019

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

Above: Aerial view of the four structures of the Mississippi River Old River Control Structure, looking downstream to the south. Water flows from the Mississippi River through the four structures, to the Atchafalaya River (right). Image credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  
America has an Achilles' heel. It lies on a quiet, unpopulated stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, 45 miles upstream from Baton Rouge. Rising up from the flat, wooded west flood plain of the Mississippi River are four massive concrete and steel structures that would make a pharaoh envious: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ greatest work, the two billion-dollar Old River Control Structure (ORCS). The ORCS saw its second highest flood on record in March 2019, and flood levels have risen again this week to their fifth highest level on record. While the structure is built to handle the unusual stress this year's floods have subjected it to, there is reason for concern for its long-term survival, since failure of the Old RIver Control Structure would be a catastrophe with global impact.
This first part of a 3-part series will study the history and importance of this critical structure, and how it almost failed in 1973. Part II, scheduled to run on Monday, is titled, Escalating Flood Heights Puts Mississippi River’s Old River Control Structure at Increasing Threat of Failure. Part III is titled, If the Old River Control Structure Fails: A Catastrophe With Global Impact, and will run later next week.

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