For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as “the German coast,” and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina—with an infrastructural concentration equalled in few other places—it was often called “the American Ruhr.” The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.
Rabalais was in on the action from the beginning, working as a construction inspector. Here by the site of the navigation lock was where the battle had begun. An old meander bend of the Mississippi was the conduit through which water had been escaping into the Atchafalaya. Complicating the scene, the old meander bend had also served as the mouth of the Red River. Coming in from the northwest, from Texas via Shreveport, the Red River had been a tributary of the Mississippi for a couple of thousand years—until the nineteen-forties, when the Atchafalaya captured it and drew it away. The capture of the Red increased the Atchafalaya’s power as it cut down the country beside the Mississippi. On a map, these entangling watercourses had come to look like the letter “H.” The Mississippi was the right-hand side. The Atchafalaya and the captured Red were the left-hand side. The crosspiece, scarcely seven miles long, was the former meander bend, which the people of the parish had long since named Old River. Sometimes enough water would pour out of the Mississippi and through Old River to quintuple the falls at Niagara. It was at Old River that the United States was going to lose its status among the world’s trading nations. It was at Old River that New Orleans would be lost, Baton Rouge would be lost. At Old River, we would lose the American Ruhr. The Army’s name for its operation there was Old River Control.
As seen in his poem “God’s Grandeur”, Hopkins translated his intense spirituality into poems that explore the relationship between humans and the natural world as an expression of God’s divinity.
It took years of prayer, meditation on God’s Word, discipleship, biblical counseling, and a deeper understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ to graciously lift the wickedly stubborn root of shame and rejection from my heart. Even now, there is still some scar tissue. Shame’s dastardly lessons from the past haunt me sporadically—how can they not? After all, the gospel doesn’t inoculate us from the pain we experience in this fallen world. In fact, it is promised to us that, by virtue of our union with Christ, we will suffer to some degree (Phil. 1:29).
I am amazed that the first recorded appearance of the angel of the Lord is in this encounter with Hagar who was not a Jew but a Gentile excluded from the covenant promises during this period in redemptive history. And I am struck that her cause was not disregarded nor forgotten by God. He took her shame and bestowed her with honor. The Lord is the lifter of Hagar’s head. He also lifts mine and others who have experienced the debilitating nature of shame.
“The coast is sinking out of sight,” Oliver Houck has said. “We’ve reversed Mother Nature.” Hurricanes greatly advance the coastal erosion process, tearing up landscape made weak by the confinement of the river. The threat of destruction from the south is even greater than the threat from the north.
The water in New Orleans’ natural aquifer is modest in amount and even less appealing than the water in the river. The city consumes the effluent of nearly half of America, and, more immediately, of the American Ruhr. None of these matters withstanding, in 1984 New Orleans took first place in the annual Drinking Water Taste Test Challenge of the American Water Works Association.
Under nature’s scenario, with many distributaries spreading the floodwaters left and right across the big deltaic plain, visually the whole region would be covered—with fresh sediments as well as water. In an average year, some two hundred million tons of sediment are in transport in the river. This is where the foreland Rockies go, the western Appalachians. Southern Louisiana is a very large lump of mountain butter, eight miles thick where it rests upon the continental shelf, half that under New Orleans, a mile and a third at Old River. It is the nature of unconsolidated sediments to compact, condense, and crustally sink. So the whole deltaic plain, a superhimalaya upside down, is to varying extents subsiding, as it has been for thousands of years. Until about 1900, the river and its distributaries were able to compensate for the subsidence with the amounts of fresh sediment they spread in flood. Across the centuries, distribution was uneven, as channels shifted and land would sink in one place and fill in somewhere else, but over all the land building process was net positive. It was abetted by decaying vegetation, which went into the flooded silts and made soil. Vegetation cannot decay unless it grows first, and it grew in large part on nutrients supplied by floodwaters.
Conversations resume—in the lounge, on the outer decks, in the pilothouse—and inevitably many of them touch on the subject of controls at Old River. General Sands is saying, “Between 1950 and 1973, there was intensification of land use in the lower Mississippi—a whole generation grew up thinking you could grow soybeans here and never get wet. Since ’73, Mother Nature has been trying to catch up. There have been seven high-water events since 1973. Now the auxiliary structure gives these folks all the assurance they need that Old River can continue to operate.”
As sediments slide down the continental slope and the river is prevented from building a proper lobe—as the delta plain subsides and is not replenished—erosion eats into the coastal marshes, and quantities of Louisiana steadily disappear. The net loss is over fifty square miles a year. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a fort was built about a thousand feet from a saltwater bay east of New Orleans. The fort is now collapsing into the bay. In a hundred years, Louisiana as a whole has decreased by a million acres. Plaquemines Parish is coming to pieces like old rotted cloth. A hundred years hence, there will in all likelihood be no Plaquemines Parish, no Terrebonne Parish. Such losses are being accelerated by access canals to the sites of oil and gas wells. After the canals are dredged, their width increases on its own, and they erode the region from the inside. A typical three-hundred-foot oil-and-gas canal will be six hundred feet wide in five years. There are in Louisiana ten thousand miles of canals. In the nineteen-fifties, after Louisiana had been made nervous by the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Corps of Engineers built the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a shipping canal that saves forty miles by traversing marsh country straight from New Orleans to the Gulf. The canal is known as Mr. Go, and shipping has largely ignored it. Mr. Go, having eroded laterally for twenty-five years, is as much as three times its original width. It has devastated twenty-four thousand acres of wetlands, replacing them with open water. A mile of marsh will reduce a coastal-storm-surge wave by about one inch. Where fifty miles of marsh are gone, fifty inches of additional water will inevitably surge. The Corps has been obliged to deal with this fact by completing the ring of levees around New Orleans, thus creating New Avignon, a walled medieval city accessed by an interstate that jumps over the walls.
Viewed from five or six thousand feet in the air, the structures at Old River inspire less confidence than they do up close. They seem temporary, fragile, vastly outmatched by the natural world—a lesion in the side of the Mississippi butterflied with surgical tape. Under construction nearby is a large hydropower plant that will take advantage of the head between the two rivers and light the city of Vidalia. The channel cut to serve it raises to three the number of artificial outlets opened locally in the side of the Mississippi River, making Old River a complex of canals and artificial islands, and giving it the appearance of a marina. The Corps is officially confident that all this will stay in place, and supports its claim with a good deal more than walnuts. The amount of limestone that has been imported from Kentucky is enough to confuse a geologist. As Fred Chatry once said, “The Corps of Engineers is convinced that the Mississippi River can be convinced to remain where it is.”