Natural, Man Made and Technology Based Disasters in the Mississippi River System in Louisiana – 2008


The Mississippi River transports 41% of the drainage from the 48 contiguous states through the state of Louisiana. Thirty percent of the Mississippi River flow is diverted to the Atchafalaya River through the Old river Control Complex.


October 2008

Wilma Subra
Technical Advisor to LEAN
Subra Company
New Iberia, LA
Paul Orr
Communications Director
Louisiana Environmental Action Network
Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper


The Mississippi River transports 41% of the drainage from the 48 contiguous states through the state of Louisiana. Thirty percent of the Mississippi River flow is diverted to the Atchafalaya River through the Old river Control Complex.

Old River Control Complex

The Old River Control Complex is located 50 miles northwest of Baton Rouge and 35 miles south of Natchez, Mississippi on the Mississippi River.

Old River Control Auxiliary Structure

Under normal circumstances the Corps Of Engineers uses four structures to divert 30% of the Mississippi River Flow into the Atchafalaya River. The 30% is federally mandated.

Low Sill Structure
Overbank Structure
Auxiliary Structure
Sidney Murray Hydroelectric Power Plant


During the flood of 2008, 33% of the Mississippi River flow was diverted to the Atchafalaya River in order to reduce water levels in the river downstream.

Morgan City

The Atchafalaya River flows from the Old River Control Structures through the Atchafalaya Basin. The narrowest portion of the river flows between the flood walls in Morgan City and Berwick on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. In April 2008 the heavy rains in the Mississippi Valley caused flooding and high river stages along the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

Flood waters over the docks at Morgan City

The flood gates had to be closed in Morgan City and Berwick to protect the communities from the flood waters. One can see markers commemorating when previous floods reached the flood wall in Morgan City in the photo below. Two more markers will need to be added for the year 2008. One for the Mississippi River Flood and one for Hurricane Gustav.

Flood gates in Morgan City with markers from previous floods

Bonnet Carré Spillway

The Bonnet Carré Spillway is 28 miles above New Orleans on the Mississippi River. Due to heavy rain in the Mississippi Valley, on April 11, 2008, the Bonnet Carré Spillway was opened to relieve high water in the Mississippi River in the New Orleans area.

Bonnet Carré Spillway open

The opening of the spillway:

  • protects the integrity of the flood protection system
  • relieves the pressure on local levees
  • lowers the river stage
  • reduces the velocity of the river current from the spillway southward



The spillway was completed in 1929 and has been opened 9 times – 1937, 1945, 1950,1973, 1975, 1979,1983, 1997, 2008. The spillway diverts Mississippi River water into Lake Pontchartrain and from there into the Gulf of Mexico. The fresh water from the Mississippi River and the nutrients in the river water changed the ecosystem of brackish Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne. The salinity in the lakes decreased. Algae blooms occurred along the north shore causing decreases in dissolved oxygen. Lake water temperature was decreased due to the colder river water. The decrease in salinity along the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico caused negative impacts to oyster beds and fishery nursery grounds. It will take a number of years for the fisheries resources to recover from the opening of the spillway.

Dead Zone – Hypoxia

The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is an area off of Louisiana and Texas where seasonal oxygen levels drop too low to support most marine life in bottom and near bottom waters. The Dead Zone can reach a size of 8,000 sq miles or about the size of New Jersey.


The Mississippi River receives agricultural runoff from 31 states in the US. The Midwest states agricultural runoff contributes the largest quantity of the nutrient load. The increase in corn production in the Midwest to fuel corn based ethanol production as an alternative fuel source has increased the nutrient loading. Corn production is a fertilizer intense crop.

The fertilizers containing Phosphorus and Nitrogen runoff into the Mississippi River and are carried to the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers. The fertilizer nutrients stimulate the growth of phytoplankton and algae in Gulf waters. The phytoplankton settle and decay in the bottom waters of the Gulf. Decomposition of the phytoplankton consume oxygen faster than the oxygen can be replenished from the surface waters, resulting in areas of low oxygen. Some fish and other mobile organism can flee the low oxygen layer. Those that cannot flee, die.

The fisheries resources are declining due to the dead zone. Fishermen must go farther out into the Gulf to find live fish and shrimp. This cost more in time and fuel and fuel cost are driving the fishing catches downward. 40% of the seafood consumed in the United States are caught in Louisiana coastal and offshore waters. The Dead Zone is having a huge economic impact on the fishing industry.

In 2008 the Dead Zone, measured from July 21 to 27, 2008, was the second largest since data was recorded beginning in 1985. The largest Dead Zone was in 2002. The 2008 Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico extended from the Mississippi River to the Boliver Peninsula in Texas near Galveston.

The low oxygen conditions began in Terrebonne and Barataria Bays in March 2008 and continued to increase during the summer. This year was predicted to be the largest Dead Zone based on nitrate nutrient loading measurements in the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. The nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico was 37% larger than in 2007.

During the monitoring cruise, Hurricane Dolly crossed the Gulf of Mexico from Yucatan to Brownsville and the winds and waves re-aerated the western and shore edges of the Dead Zone. Thus the 2008 Dead Zone was the second largest in recorded history.

Fuel Oil Spill – July 23, 2008

July 23, 2008 1:30 AM:

In the Mississippi River at New Orleans the 590 foot Liberian-flagged tanker ship Tintomara, carrying styrene and biodiesel fuel, is heading down river. A 61 foot barge filled with 419,000 gallons of No. 6 Fuel oil is being towed across the river by the tugboat Mel Oliver.

Vessel Traffic Controller: “Mel Oliver, Mel Oliver, back down, captain, You’re crossing the bow of a ship.”

Pilot, Tintomara: “We just took his tow. The barge is right in front of us, and we’re running it over.”

The Mel Oliver never responded to warnings before or during the event.

The remains of the fuel barge (in red) being held against the footing of the Crescent City Connection and leaking oil

Immediately after the collision pilots and on-shore vessel traffic controllers called for extra tugboats, began to warn other boats and ships to slow down and relay information from the scene.

One on scene observer radioed a few minutes after the event: “They need to get a containment over here for oil fuel. They got fuel all over the freakin’ river now.“

The Mel Oliver was being piloted by an apprentice mate. The Captain was not on board.

Tug boats on the river intercepted the leaking fuel oil barge that was nearly split in half and wedged it against the Crescent City Connection Bridge in downtown New Orleans.

The Mississippi River was at its second highest river stage in 2008 due to heavy rainfall events in the Midwest. The swift current presented problems containing the barge pieces.

The remains of the fuel barge (in red) being held against the footing of the Crescent City Connection

Drinking Water intake structures along the Mississippi River were immediately ordered to shut down. The Mississippi River is the only source of fresh water for the Greater New Orleans area and communities down river.

The smell of petroleum permeated the air through out the city of New Orleans.

The barge continued to leak.

Oil slicks in the river at the entrance to the Industrial Canal

13 miles of booms were deployed on both sides of the river.

Oil Skimmer boats attempted unsuccessfully to contain the spill that stretched from bank to bank.

Swifter than normal current due to late spring rains in the Midwest moved oil from the spill 97 miles down river to the mouth of the river in just over 24 hours.

The spill then stretched from shore to shore for 100 miles below the city of New Orleans.

Mother River overlooks the site of the spill

Mother River under the Crescent City Connection Bridge lifts her arms over the river as she oversees the catastrophic disaster inflicted on her river. This was the largest spill on the Mississippi River in nearly a decade.

Ship traffic was shut down for days requiring many vessels to anchor wherever they happened to be

The Mississippi river is one of the nations busiest waterways. A 100 mile stretch of the Mississippi River was closed to marine traffic. The port of New Orleans, one of the world’s busiest ports, was shut down for 6 days.

200 ships and barge tows were stranded on the river above and below the leaking barge and in the Gulf of Mexico. The ships carry raw materials and products to and from petroleum refineries, chemicals plants, and grain elevators. The port closure is estimated to have cost 101 million dollars per day. The economic impact to the entire area affected by the spill was estimated at 275 million dollars per day.

Carnival Cruise Lines passengers disrupted by the spill

The Carnival ship Fantasy with 2,056 passengers was not able to enter the Mississippi River in order to dock at the Port of New Orleans so it was re-routed to the Port of Mobile. Passengers had to then be bussed back to New Orleans and outgoing passengers had to be bussed from New Orleans to Mobile. 1 million dollars in revenue is loss when a ship does not dock in New Orleans. Carnival Cruise lines did not resume docking in New Orleans until November.

The steam boat Natchez stuck at port

The paddle wheeler Natchez was totally booked for a very profitable weekend. The National Conference of State Legislators were holding their convention in New Orleans. Legislators from across the United States were attending and many had bought tickets for a Natchez cruise on the Mississippi River. The Natchez loss a quarter of a million dollars in revenue the weekend following the spill.

Ferries stuck at their dock

Ferries along the Miss. River are used to transport workers between the east and west banks of the Mississippi River from New Orleans to the lower reaches of the river. The shut down of the river and the ferries caused some workers to add 50 to 125 miles each way to their commutes. In many areas the ferries also serve as evacuation routes in times of chemical releases.

Oil on the banks of the Mississippi

On July 29, six days after the spill, the dredges near the mouth of the Mississippi River that are used to maintain the navigational channel at the river junction with the Gulf of Mexico, began encountering oily waste mixed with river sediment. The dredge spoil is normally deposited in the adjacent wild life management area. The dredging was suspended.

The dredging is crucial to the shipping industry. If dredging is not maintained on an ongoing basis, oil tankers going into the river and grain ships leaving the river for foreign ports would have to carry less cargo to make in over the sand bars in the pass.

After a day of evaluating the oily sediment it was decided that dredging could continue.

Oil and woody flotsam on the banks of the Mississippi

July 30, 2008, seven days after the spill, an additional 2,500 gallons of oil from the barge bubbled to the surface from the barge and spilled into the river. The spill, again, shut down river traffic for 6 hours and closed the water intakes in three parishes. This release of oil was a result of the barge shifting due to the river having dropped 3 feet in the week it had been propped against the Crescent City Connection.

Ship washing stations were set up above and below the major oily areas on the River. All ships were washed after leaving the oily area.

Oily rocks on the banks of the Mississippi

August 4, 2008, 12 days after the spill there were several small spills from the barge. Clean up efforts along the southern stretches of the river had to be suspended due to Tropical Storm Edouard creating high winds and rough waters in the area.

Oil on both sides of the containment booms

August 7, 15 days after the spill, the last portion of the barge was salvaged from the Mississippi river.

Skimmer boats continued to skim the oil from the river. Ground clean up crews continued to cleanup the shorelines and battures of the Mississippi River from New Orleans to the mouth of the river.

Oil on the banks near Jackson Barracks

Oil along the banks near Jackson Barracks were cleaned up in preparation for a visit from President Bush. He was in New Orleans to recognize the three year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Oil and water in the batture

Oil contaminated the banks of the Mississippi River with oily sediment sludge, contaminated vegetation, timbers, birds and wildlife. Large fish kills occurred along the river. Cleanup crews worked on the spill areas for more than 6 weeks. The toxic chemicals in the oily sludge were toxic to fish, crustaceans and wildlife and were available to bio-accumulate up the food chain to impact human health.

Jesuit Bend after cleanup

This area known as Jesuit Bend on the west bank of the Miss. River in Plaquemine parish was “cleaned up” two days before the above photo was taken. Major oil contamination still exist.

Oil slicks moving down the river

The Mississippi River for 100 miles from New Orleans to the mouth of the river was severely impacted by the oil spill from the barge. The environmental damage will be long lasting and oily residues will continue to contaminate the shores of the river for years to come. Bio-accumulation of the toxic chemicals in the oil will impact human receptors for decades.

Hurricane Gustav – September 1, 2008

Made landfall near the community of Cocodrie in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana

Storm Surge of 12 feet

Winds up to 125 miles per hour

More that 51% of the residents of Louisiana experienced Hurricane Force Winds

Severe wind, storm surge water and rainfall damaged the entire state of Louisiana

Three years and three days after Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Gustav struck Louisiana. Hurricane Gustav was physically larger than Hurricane Katrina but significantly less intense at landfill in Louisiana.

Hurricane Gustav severely impacted the coastal areas of Louisiana and cut a wide path of destruction from the coast to the northern portions of the state.

Economic Impact of Huricane Gustav:

  • 7 to 15 billion dollars in property damage
  • 2.5 to 5 billion dollars in lost business activities
  • 150 to 200 million dollars per day in lost oil and gas production
  • 500 million dollars in manufacturing losses during the hurricane
  • 75 to 300 million dollars in flooding losses in central and northern Louisiana


Agricultural losses:

  • -75% of sugarcane crop in south and central Louisiana
  • -30% of cotton crops in central and northern Louisiana


The Mississippi river reversed its flow due to the hurricane storm surge. The river flowed up river from the mouth at the Gulf of Mexico to 125 miles up river, just below the Bonnet Carrie Spillway in St. Charles parish. Barges moored on the Mississippi River broke loose, traveled upstream and destroyed a petrochemical facility’s ship loading and unloading dock. Barges also damaged a water intake structure in St. Charles Parish.

Along the Industrial Canal in New Orleans, barges and a ship broke loose and threatened to damage the flood walls on the Industrial Canal that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Numerous spills and leaks occurred along the Mississippi River and in the coastal areas of Louisiana.

Damage to boats was severe.

Petit Caporal

Leeville Oil waste

Cemetery filled with sediment

Home washed off pilings

Sediment Sludge

Home and sediment sludge

Oily Ducks

As a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality recovered, sampled and disposed of 6 million orphan containers.  As a result of the hurricanes in 2008, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality will have a lesser but still very large number of orphan containers to recover, sample and dispose of.

Hurricane Ike – September 12-13, 2008

Made landfall in Texas at Galveston Island

Storm Surge up to 15 feet along the entire Louisiana coast brought brackish and salt water inland 25 miles and flooded and severely damaged every coastal community in Louisiana.

The coastal communities in Louisiana that had been destroyed by Hurricane Rita in September 2005 were rebuilt and then damaged by Hurricane Gustav on September 1, 2008 and then were flooded and severely damaged again by Hurricane Ike 11 days after Hurricane Gustav.

Flooded docks

Levees were breached and over topped in the communities of Chauvin, Isle de Jean Charles, Montegut, Pointe aux Chenes, Cocodrie and Dulac.

Back Bays and marsh wetlands areas were flooded.

The storm surges flooded Bayous, Rivers, Coulees and Streams and forced the flood waters into the surrounding land, homes and businesses.

Docks at Morgan City flooded again

The Atchafalaya River exceeded flood state during both Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The water in the Atchafalaya River in Morgan City, more than 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, was flowing upstream due to the hurricanes storm surge and south winds. Back water and residential areas in the Atchafalaya Basin were flooded.

Areas where levees had been damaged by Hurricane Gustav sustained greater levee destruction. The Corps of Engineers had attempted to do quick fixes on damaged levee systems after Gustav, but the Band-Aids were not adequate. Community members all along the coast struggled to shore up the levees to hold back the storm surge as Hurricane Ike moved ever closer.

Flooded commercial property

Two days after Hurricane Ike made landfall, the strong south winds associated with the hurricane were still blowing and pushing gulf waters into the coastal parishes and the flood waters continued to rise. The communities of Jean Lafitte, Lafitte, Crowne Pointe and Barataria were caught by the late rising waters and had to be rescued from their homes and roof tops by search and rescue teams.

Hurricane Evacuation Route under water

Hurricane Evacuation Routes were flooded before the hurricane force winds were anywhere near the coast. The evacuation routes remained under water for more than 5 days following the hurricane landfall.

Flooded cemetery

In southern Louisiana bodies are buried above ground due to the shallow water table. Cemeteries were inundated by the flood waters and coffins and vaults were dislodged by the storm surge and redeposited in the marshes and wetlands further inland.

Rip Van Winkle

Rip Van Winkle road leads to one of the five surface expression salt domes in southwest Louisiana. The road is lined on each side by giant oak trees and sugarcane and Tabasco pepper fields. It was completely underwater until it reached the gates to the gardens which are located on the elevated portion of the salt dome.

Flooded house

The storm surge caused flooding of homes that had not been elevated after Hurricane Rita. The flood waters in the homes were estimated to be 12 to 18 inches lower for Hurricane Ike than for Hurricane Rita. But flooded is flooded and flood damage means gutting the entire contents, stripping out walls, repairing the entire structure or deciding to move somewhere else. Most of the flooded homes had just been rebuilt after Hurricane Rita, three years ago. Brick structures are impossible or cost prohibitive to elevate.

The local Drug Store flooded

Structures built on slabs flooded again. A number of businesses had not yet reopened due to damage by Hurricane Rita three years before.

An elevated home

Those homeowners and businesses that elevated their structures after Rita fared much better. They only sustained wind damage. However, one has to build up high and build strong. Homes and businesses that did not have pilings driven into the ground in order to support the buildings, had the supports damaged and the buildings damaged. Elevation of homes has been estimated to cost $30,000 to $60,000 just for the elevation portions of the structure. Such costs make elevation of homes cost prohibitive.

The Delcambre bridge – looking up Delcambre Canal

Agriculture fields, seafood processing facilities, fish, shrimp and oyster boats, oil field service companies, were damaged or destroyed. The Delcambre Canal served as a pathway for storm water from Weeks Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to flood residential and business areas along the canal banks and conveyed a 6 foot storm surge that inundated residential areas on Lake Peigneur north of the canal. The canal banks were lined with oil industry work boats and shrimp boats seeking a safe haven from Hurricane Ike.

Horse in a flooded field

Cattle and horses are a mainstay of coastal communities. The cattle are moved to the marsh and wetlands area and allowed to graze for many months. Many of the cattle were moved to higher ground in anticipation of the hurricanes.

30 head of cattle in 12 inches of water

These cattle were moved to this pasture in anticipation of Hurricane Ike. The farmer indicated that this pasture had never flooded before. The cattle are standing in 12 inches of brackish water. Brackish water is not a suitable source of drinking water for cattle.

The Louisiana Government spent more than $500 million dollars responding to the two hurricanes. The government will recoup 75 to 100 % of the money they spent from the Federal Government.

52 oil and gas platforms were destroyed and 32 were severely damaged.

The fishing industry lost more than 100 million dollars not counting docks and infrastructure.

The agriculture crops in the fields waiting for harvest season were severely damaged or destroyed.

The coastal communities lost home, businesses, and infrastructure.

The environment was severely damaged.


  • Adopt and enforce improved regulations requiring the securing of vessels, barges, ships, etc. to avoid damage and destruction to infrastructure such as bridges, docks, levees and flood walls, and water intake structures during high river flow events and severe weather events.
  • Require the securing of all containers and equipment that may be transported by high river flow events, and high winds and storm surges during severe weather events.
  • Decrease nutrient loading in the Mississippi River upriver of Louisiana.
  • Improve storm surge predictions to save lives and enable sites in the path of the storm surges to be secured and stabilized.
  • Restore wetlands and barrier islands along the coast of Louisiana.
  • Maintain the integrity of levee systems.
  • Require double hulled vessels and barges for the transportation of toxic and hazardous materials.
  • Require the remediation of toxic sediment/sludges and chemicals spills resulting from extreme weather conditions.
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