Earlier this summer, as the swollen Mississippi River roared through the Midwest wreaking havoc on the cities, towns, and thousands of miles of farmland along its banks, Louisiana waited. And waited. Then we panicked. The Army Corps of Engineers decided upon the Morganza Spillway, a controlled set of gates 200 miles upriver that when opened, allow the Mississippi to follow its natural course into the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in the country. New Orleans and Baton Rouge simply could not get wet, not after Katrina swallowed up any remaining faith in the federal levee systems. But the last time the Morganza had been opened was in 1973 — it’s definitely not an everyday event — and the Atchafalaya Swamp is home to thousands of Louisianans who have inhabited the region for generations.
Two days prior to the Morganza opening, I traveled to the Atchafalaya region with a reporter for the New York Times and met several families who were busy packing up and leaving their homes to head for higher ground. No one was sure how bad it would be (and a few were planning to stick around to find out), but most of the people we spoke to were too busy deciding where and how to take everything they could before the Army Corps flooded their homes. The next day, I stuck around New Orleans to photograph the way people were preparing inside the city. There is a small community of raised houses on the river side of the levee uptown, and in some cases the water was lapping right up under the floorboards. Things were tense.
In the end, New Orleans stayed dry and the Atchafalaya Basin received the muddy Mississippi River water that the natural ecosystem craves, but the future is still cloudy for native residents who have lived their entire lives in the basin. Although the flooding that hit the small towns in this region of Cajun Country was generally not quite as severe as residents had feared, damage was still widespread and many people are still not able to return to their homes.
My pictures from the Atchafalaya appeared in two stories in the days leading up to the Morganza Spillway opening (here and here), and a few of my pictures from New Orleans were included in a slide show online as well. Huzzah!