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Big Easy Living: Everybody’s doing it … the Bonnet Carre Spillway

One of the great things about New Orleans is the fact that people here can – and do — turn anything into a celebration. In a city where block parties, dog birthdays and pothole anniversaries (Lakeview crater turns 3!) are considered ordinary fetes, it’s no surprise that anything extraordinary would be cause for commemoration.

And the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway is extraordinary. So, for the past week or so, the party has moved upriver.

“It was fun,” a friend told me. “We took the grandkids and a picnic.”

“Don’t stop when you first see the parked cars,” Stewart’s coffeehouse buddies told him. “Keep driving.”

On Saturday, with 300 of the Bonnet Carre Spillway’s 350 gates open, a whopping 300,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water moved through the long, low concrete barrier that, when river levels rise, allows water to be diverted from the Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.

Yesterday – Sunday, May 15, 2011, the spillway’s official 83rd birthday – another 30 gates were expected to be opened, and there was little doubt that the 1945 record of 316,000 cfs of water pouring through would be smashed. The spillway is engineered to handle a maximum capacity of only 250,000 cfs, and the river won’t crest until May 23.

A great excuse for a party.

We headed for Norco on Sunday under azure skies, car windows wide to accept the unlikely May breeze. Stewart’s coffeeshop comrades had prepped him with directions: Take I-10 to 310, exit at Norco, and follow Highway 61 to Apple Street. Hang a left on Apple, then turn right at the Mississippi River. Can’t miss it.

We didn’t. But directions hardly were needed: All we had to do was follow the crowd. Sure enough, we soon began to see parked cars along River Road, long before we reached the chunky two-story stone building that houses the Corps of Engineers’ Bonnet Carre Spillway office. We inched forward, past a straggle of people hiking along the road, others strolling atop the levee to our left, and found a parking space a hundred yards from the spillway.

Up ahead was a small white tent, where a park ranger stood behind a table and handed out brochures, answered questions and pointed out landmarks on a long map in front of him. A row of portalets had been set up down the hill, with a hand-lettered “restrooms” sign pointing their way.

Does Louisiana know how to handle a crowd, or what?

The concrete spillway stretched behind the ranger, across a narrow inlet at one side of the river. The low rumble of tumbling water gradually built as we neared. Soon we could see white-tipped plumes crashing through the square openings, carrying muddy brown Mississippi River water away from our neighborhood and our so-low-to-the-ground house in the Garden District, some 20 miles east.

We stood in the sun, the cool wind in our faces, pressing cameras through the iron grill set up to keep people at bay, snapping photos of the water rushing through the bays. Stewart scoured the far shore with his grandfather’s (irreplaceable) World War II-era binoculars, the ones he takes to every Saints game. It seemed apropos for this Louisiana event.

The crowd was a congenial mix of old and young, with a biker in a leather jacket here, a gray-haired guy in a motorized wheelchair there. Toddlers ran up and down the grassy side of the levee, skipping past dogs straining at their leashes. Buddy Roemer, still dressed in Sunday best, shook hands with passers-by who recognized the former Louisiana governor.

Along the water’s edge sat a dozen or so people casting lines into the water; the spillway is a popular spot for fishing, crabbing, shrimping and crawfishing. A couple of guys sprawled in the grass, enjoying the sun on their faces, their bikes lying behind them.

We ambled up and down the levee, commenting on the fact that the trees at the base of the levee had water halfway up their trunks, and that a depth marker near shore showed the river level at 21 feet and rising.

According to the ranger, only four times in history have all the spillway’s bays been open at once, and the sheer volume of water moving through it now, he believes, will certainly set new records.

“It’s historic,” Stewart said. “That’s why people come. They want to see history in the making.”

They do. But there seemed to be something else at work, too.

Floods and hurricanes and other natural disasters are serious business. Government steps to prevent them or to remedy them are not matters to be taken lightly. Nor is the potential impact on people in their paths. We know that better than most.

But the fact that we spontaneously come together and celebrate something as nominal as a floodgate opening speaks to our sense of community, our humor and good will, our spontaneity and ability to savor the moment.

It’s not just that we like to party. We know when it’s necessary to party.


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