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New Orleans • In a last-ditch move to relieve stress on levees burdened by floodwaters, the Army Corps of Engineers opened a major Mississippi River flood gate on Saturday for the second time in nearly 40 years, funneling water toward farmland and small communities to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge from inundations.

At 3 p.m. CDT, a crane lifted the metal teeth on one of the Morganza Spillway's 125 gates, and an avalanche of foamy white water began rushing through, forming a massive and fast-growing puddle on land that minutes earlier had been dry. Water branched out like giant fingers over the grassy floodplain and began rippling southward, toward isolated hamlets, fishing and hunting camps, and towns tucked among the bayous. One news helicopter spotted a rabbit darting out of the way as the flooding began.

It was the first time since 1973 the Corps has resorted to opening the Morganza Spillway, about 40 miles north of the state capital, Baton Rouge, and 185 miles upstream from New Orleans. The move underscored the potential for catastrophe if the rain-swollen Mississippi were allowed to run unfettered through the state's two largest cities.

"The system is under tremendous pressure, and it's going to be under tremendous pressure for quite a long time," said the Corps' Mississippi division commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, at a news conference shortly before the gate was lifted. "This system was really designed back in the 1930s to protect lives, and that's exactly what we're doing."

Walsh and Lt. Col. Ed Fleming, the New Orleans district commander of the Corps, outlined a mathematical formula that would determine how many more gates must open before the levees downstream are considered safe. The goal is to shave enough water off the Mississippi to protect levees designed to hold if the flow of water passing through Baton Rouge hits 1.5 million cubic feet per second. On Saturday, the flow reached 1.51 million cubic feet per second, prompting the decision to open one gate of the Spillway, which will bring the flow down to the 1.5 level.

But the Mississippi has yet to crest in Louisiana, and the flow is expected to reach 1.626 million cubic feet per second by the time it does, about a week from now. Eventually, enough gates to reduce the Mississippi's flow by 125,000 cubic feet per second will be opened, a process that will take several days, to reduce the chances of people and wildlife being caught by the rising waters. —

Bridge reopens after runaway barges strike

A highway bridge over the Mississippi River that was struck by two runaway barges has been re-opened after inspectors gave it a safety check. The U.S. Highway 190 bridge at Baton Rouge was opened around 4 p.m., hours after the Saturday afternoon accident, according to state transportation department spokeswoman Jodi Conachen. Twenty-five barges under tow on the Mississippi River broke loose north of the bridge. What caused the barges to break loose was not clear.

Source • The Associated Press