MORGANZA, La. (WAFB) - It’s the ultimate man versus nature showdown 50 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. It’s the story of Old River, and a man who was there in 1973 when it was feared the Mississippi River might change its course.
The roar is constant, and angry torrents of water rush through the low sill structure as man attempts to keep the Mississippi River on its current course. Russell Beauvais is in charge of this vital complex, serving as operations manager at Old River.
“When you think about it and you get to a flood event, you realize the importance of what the structures and all are really here for, 'cause without them, everybody’s life would be impacted that lives south of here, and possibly north of here too," Beauvais said.
In simple terms, Old River was designed to make time stand still. In 1950, about 70% of the Mississippi River’s flow went down the main channel and 30% to the Atchafalaya, but engineers recognized the balance was shifting and that if nothing was done, the Atchafalaya could soon capture the Mississippi. More than 50 years after the first structure was built, Old River has succeeded in maintaining that 70/30 balance.
A recent article described Old River as America’s Achilles heel. That’s not entirely true because there isn’t any real danger of the control structure failing anytime soon, but if it did, it would have major consequences not only in south Louisiana, but all over the country. If the Mississippi changed course, it would cripple the ports in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Industry along the river would be brought to a standstill. The nation’s food supply would see huge disruptions, and places like Morgan City could be swamped by the sudden increase in water moving that way.
As it turns out, that nightmare scenario almost happened in 1973.
“So here comes ’73. We get word, we got water coming... big time water," said Perry Gustin.
Gustin is a lifelong resident of Morganza and in 1973 was working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Deep into the ’73 flood fight while stationed at the Morganza Spillway, he recalls getting a panicked radio call from the foreman at Old River.
“He said, ‘I went out there and made my rounds’ and he said, ‘We ain’t got no wing wall.’ I said, ‘Wait, what, where?’ He said, ‘On the northeast intake.’ He said, ‘The first monolith is gone!’” Gustin recalled.
The loss of that wing wall meant the whole structure, and therefore the course of the Mississippi, could be in jeopardy. Gustin and a couple of engineers rushed up to Old River and walked out onto the damaged structure.
“Steve, that thing was shaking. It was just vibrating. You’d put your hands on it and it would just quiver like that," he said.
To save the structure, the Corps commandeered stone to replace the lost wing wall. Thought to be a temporary repair at the time, that stone wall became permanent and is still there today. The Corps also ordered the first ever opening of the Morganza Spillway to relieve pressure on Old River. Gustin was one of two crane operators tasked with opening a third of the bays in an 8-hour stretch, a remarkable pace.
“We dropped the Mississippi River behind Morganza by 4 feet," Gustin said.
The emergency repairs and opening of the Morganza Spillway helped avert a crisis in 1973, and while all involved seem to acknowledge some risk still exists, both Gustin and Beauvais expressed confidence in the current state of Old River.
“All the structures are sound and ready to operate if need be," Beauvais said.
“But the low sill was put there to stay, son, and it’s proven that it’s there," Gustin said.