Dispatch: Mississippi River Flooding and New Orleans

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Analyst Marko Papic discusses how the Mississippi River's flooding could threaten a critical piece of the United States' transportation and energy infrastructure.

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

The Mississippi River is surging and is threatening to flood considerable parts of the United States. The current crest of the river is at Helena, Arkansas, and the next major city that it's expected to reach is Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the crest is expected to be the worst since the 1927 Great Flood.

The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers has stated that all the levees are working properly. However, the danger is that the flood will be so great that it will overwhelm both the flood control systems and the levees and force Mississippi to actually change its course. Currently, 70 percent of the flow reaches the Gulf of Mexico via New Orleans, via what is currently called the Mississippi. However, 30 percent goes down the Atchafalaya River. This distribution of flow, however, is a product of what is called the Old River Control Structure, which is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and allows the flow of the river to continue to go down the Mississippi even though its natural flow should eventually be reversed down the much shorter Atchafalaya River.

If the bulk of the flow was to change and go down the Atchafalaya to the Gulf of Mexico, the problem would be that all the energy and transportation infrastructure already built in New Orleans would become to an extent useless, at least for a short period of time while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers attempted to essentially dredge a canal down the Mississippi and restore some element of its former flow that would be sufficient to continue shipping goods down to New Orleans.

Throughout America's history, New Orleans has really been the axis through the heartland — the core, if you will — of the United States of America. The colonization of the Midwest is really what allowed America to become a great agricultural power and also eventually an industrial power. This is why the battle for New Orleans in January of 1815 was actually one of the most key moments of American history. To this day, New Orleans remains a critical piece of infrastructure in the United States. The Port of South Louisiana is the largest port in the U.S. by tonnage, and New Orleans retains its role in transportation of not just energy, but also petrochemicals, fertilizers and agricultural products.

There's no way to forecast whether or not the Mississippi River will ultimately change its flow into the Gulf of Mexico, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does still have options. It can, for example, open the Morganza control structure, preventing the flooding of New Orleans. However, if such an event was to happen, it would be as geopolitically significant at Katrina if not more because it would essentially end New Orleans' existence as a key part of American transportation and energy infrastructure.

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