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Resilience and memories run strong in Louisiana flood zone

By the CNN Wire Staff
Calling it Cajun engineering, Gerald Gaudat builds a makeshift levee around his home in Stephenville, Louisiana.
Calling it Cajun engineering, Gerald Gaudat builds a makeshift levee around his home in Stephenville, Louisiana.
  • Residents brace as the Army Corps of Engineers considers opening the Morganza Spillway
  • Opening the spillway could help spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from some flooding
  • The opening also would flood populated and rural areas in the Atchafalaya Basin
  • Many locals remember weathering what's known as the Flood of 1973

(CNN) -- Resilience got Louisianans through what's known as the Flood of 1973, and it will again, says everyone from the governor to local residents once again facing the threat of floods.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint, but we're working together," Gov. Bobby Jindal said this week. "And I know it feels like Louisiana's been through a lot, but we're going to get through this. We're going to fight hard. We're got tough, resilient people."

Jindal spoke as residents along the Atchafalaya River braced for possible flooding as the Army Corps of Engineers considered opening the 4,800-foot-long Morganza Spillway above Baton Rouge. Opening the spillway could help spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from some damage, but it would flood populated and rural areas in the swampy Atchafalaya Basin.

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Memories of the 1973 flood run strong in the basin, which is home not only to the river but to myriad tributaries as well.

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Neighbors along the river were farther and fewer in between back then, but "there was a lot of flooding areawide," said Mark Rogers of Gibson. "Folks had flooded houses and rural property" all along the Atchafalaya.

At the house of his wife-to-be in Gibson, in Terrebonne Parish, "there was 2 feet of water in their yard for two months," Rogers said. "That's just a typical example. Some people might have had more."

Said Leroy Breaux of Amelia: "I was living right where I'm living now. We didn't have a levee system like we do now.

"People sandbagged and purchased pumps, but they took on water in the lower areas."

The water reached his steakhouse, flooding part of the building. The same building still bore a watermark from flooding in 1927, which Breaux's grandmother had shown him.

It's not likely that all 125 gates of the Morganza spillway would be opened this time. In 1973, the last time the Morganza was opened, only 42 were opened.

If the gates are opened now, officials expect water to take one day to fully reach Morgan City near the coast, said Russell Beauvais, operations manager of the complex that includes the spillway.

Are you there? Share your photos and videos from the scene, but please stay safe

Allan Von Werder, managing editor of the Daily Review newspaper in St. Mary's Parish, remembers the 1973 flood. He was 19 or 20 years old at the time.

"It was tense. The seawall was a lot lower then" -- 7 to 8 feet high, compared with 20 now. "A lot of people didn't know what to expect, because the Morganza had never been opened before. People were terrified about a wall of water coming in."

"It was almost like the city was under siege," he added. The Army Corps of Engineers and the National Guard were all over town, helping with preparations.

Many of the area's residents have extended family nearby, so those who evacuated stayed with family members.

"Most people stayed put, but they were paying close attention to the news," Von Werder said. "Businesses on the river side of town took on a lot of water."

Schools closed five weeks early, he recalls. Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte remembers likewise.

"School let out early in April," Matte said. "I was a junior in high school. We were encouraged and recruited by (the mayor) to come out and fill sandbags. And most of the guys, you know, they didn't ask the ladies, the girls, to fill sandbags on the weekends. ... I saw some pictures the other day of not just the men, but the ladies that worked at City Hall coming out and filling sandbags. Of course, the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers were here in great numbers."

The worst of the area's damage came from rain rather than the opening of the spillways, Von Werder said. It poured, and many residents had to deal with a foot of rain at home.

This time, "I would say people are concerned, a little apprehensive," Von Werder said. "People are taking defensive measures, but it looks like we'll be OK."

A piece of the seawall is now in downtown Morgan City, marking the 1973 flood level.

"People here are resilient," said Alvin Cockerham of the city's fire department.

Fire Chief Morris Price was 10 years old at the time and lived in Morgan City. He remembers going to fill sandbags at a sand lot created by state emergency officials.

"We were kids. We thought we were having fun" filling the bags, Morris said. He and his two teenage brothers filled sandbags that were offered to worried residents in Morgan City, a town of about 13,500 people.

"The river came up on the docks and the seawall held back the water," said Gen Price, the chief's mother. "I feel like we'll be fortunate again (this time), because the seawall is 20 feet high now."

Cockerham said preparations being made this time are reminiscent of 1973.

"It was like it is today -- a beehive of activity," he said. Dump trucks were everywhere in 1973, and the Army Corps of Engineers was busy building temporary extensions atop the levy to handle the crest, he said.

The Corps rebuilt the levy in 1984-1985, raising it to 20 feet.

Back in 1973, the flooding brought trouble as well as good fishing.

"Tell you what, it was a good crawfish season," Cockerham said. We were fishing in water 12, 13, 14 feet deep. That's my rough recollection, of course."

Typical crawfishing in those parts happens at 3 to 4 feet, he said.

CNN's Tracy Sabo, Ed Lavandera and Josh Levs contributed to this report.