How high is the water, mama?

St. Louis Cathedral as seen from the levee

“How high is the water mama?”  We used to sing this Johnny Cash song as children.  My mother would strum the chords on her guitar, and we would ask, “How high is the water mama?”  She would call back an answer, starting with “Two feet high and rising,” and with each passing chorus the river would get higher.  I can’t help now but think that in town after town along the Mississippi River some child is ominously asking his mother the same question we used to playfully sing as the water washes away everything they own.

As I write this, the Mississippi River is getting progressively higher, and flooding river town after river town as it winds its way down to New Orleans.  The Mississippi Delta, from Memphis to Vicksburg, is feeling the effect right now, as the river crests at record highs.  And with it, we are losing pieces of history, little by little, as antebellum mansions and the rickety shacks of bluesman alike are succumbing to the force that is the Mississippi River.  The same river that is commemorated in songs and stories, that gives life and commerce to so many in the region, is flooding enormous swaths of land and leaving the future of so many in doubt.

And the butt of this cruel joke, as it has been so many times recently, is once again Louisiana, the end user of the mighty Mississippi.  Postcard names such as Bonnet Carre and Morganza, are in actuality spillways to drain the river before it crests the levees.  If the needs of the many do in fact outweigh the needs of the few, even the many see the implications of what is about to happen.  If the Morganza Spillway is opened, Baton Rouge and New Orleans will likely be spared, but small towns like Butte La Rose, in the path of the spillways, will in all likelihood cease to exist; the floodwaters will overtake them, and there is no money or political will to see them rebuilt.  The rush of freshwater into the eco-systems along the bayou will severely damage the oyster industry, which is already reeling in the wake of BP and the Deepwater Horizon.  Many cajuns, for whom the bayou is a way of life, will be displaced, wondering if they will ever be able to come home, and if not, what the future holds.

And there is a cruel irony in all of this, as it is the will of the river itself that wants to flood into the Atchafalaya Basin, and free itself from the levees and containment structures that guide it from Baton Rouge down through New Orleans.  The river itself wants to change course, as it does every 400 years or so, to be absorbed into the Atchafalaya River Basin, and flow into the Gulf.  Of course, this would devastate the most important port city in America, New Orleans.  If the river changes course, New Orleans becomes nothing more than a tourist town, the mighty port city at the mouth of the Mississippi would stand watch over stream.  This is something that cannot be allowed to happen, but many feel inevitably must happen to save the disappearing coastline and the way of life that goes with it.  Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t could be the title of a brief history of New Orleans.

For now, however, the Mississippi River is swollen in New Orleans, and threatening to top the levees, or possibly breach them once again.  The Army Corps of Engineers is already admitting to the levee system being stressed, and water seepage has been reported on the levees behind the French Market and on Dumaine Street.  This time the cruel invading army of water is poised to strike from the north, a ruthless modern day Sherman.  And people nervously wait.  A city just barely on its feet, a city that has been to hell and back, a city that suffers a Promethean fate, constantly regenerating itself only to face the waters of destruction again, waits to see how the script plays out this time.  A proud city who cannot but help see the irony in their salvation:  the flooding of the Morganza spillway and it’s inhabitants will spare the flooding of New Orleans; a dark irony indeed.

And 1,500 miles away I watch, my nerves jangling.  I think about my friends in Baton Rouge and New Orleans as the water steadily rises, rolling ineluctably towards them. About the people in towns like Butte La Rose, who are poised to lose everything they have ever known.  I think about the incredible kindness I have been shown by the people of Louisiana, despite the hardships they have faced and continue to face.  My mind drifts down to Jackson Square and the Cathedral St. Louis, the water now lapping at the levee tops, and to the bars and clubs on Frenchman, where I have whiled away my time listening to jazz and watching people over a cold Abita Amber.  I think about how everything I love so much could be gone in a minute, and I wonder if I have ever appreciated it enough.  Do you ever really appreciate anything enough?

I also hear the ignorance of people from other places, the callousness, as they talk about the foolish people who live along the river’s banks or below sea level.  “They should have known better.  They were asking for it.”  Even as tsunamis in Japan, earthquakes in Spain, and the eruption of Mount Etna show us no place is ever safe, there are those among us that have a certain “I told you so” pathology that is devoid of sympathy or empathy for the plight of others.  These uncharitable souls cannot be reached, but I do hope they are treated more kindly when it is their turn, as it inevitably will be.

So we wait and see.  And the river rolls.  The very thing that sustains the State of Louisiana and created the place that is New Orleans is now threatening it once again. “How high is the water mama?”  I hope this time this question lays unanswered.

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