Atchafalaya Basin flooding fears send sportsmen scurrying to clear out campsites

The members of the Ramah Hunting Club had a busy weekend.

The possible opening of the Morganza Spillway early next week as the Mississippi River’s water levels continue to rise had club members, with help from their kids, scrambling to clear out their campsites.

They were determined to save what they could in the event the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides to open the spillway, sending a surge of water into the Atchafalaya Basin.

“We’re not taking any chances,” Claude “Bubba” McKenzie said as he steered his boat through the murky waters of the Atchafalaya River on Saturday morning.

The Ramah Hunting Club’s 15-acre camp is located right below the Interstate 10 bridge near the Ramah/Maringouin exit.

“I started last week,” McKenzie said, of the process of dismantling the campsite. “We’ve already moved 15 four-wheelers. Today, we’re moving the stove, couches, our clothes and everything else.”

“It’s aggravating for sure, (but) that’s the chance you take when you have a hunting camp along the spillway,” fellow club member Billy Long added.

But it wasn’t all work.

While his members cleaned out their campsite, the club’s president, Bill Deshotels, used the opportunity to get in some last-minute hunting.

“I know I shouldn’t be doing this with all the work we have to do,” the 80-year-old said as he skinned the 160-pound deer he had dangling between two trees. “But I just figured I’d go hunting a little, while I was waiting for everyone to show up. Now I got a deer to clean.”

As of early Saturday evening, the Corps had not made a final decision on whether it would open the gates of the Morganza Spillway flood control structure in northern Pointe Coupee Parish.

Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said it’s possible operation of the spillway may not be required. If a decision is made to do it, he said, the earliest an operation could occur would be Wednesday.

“I know they’re still evaluating the forecast and it continues to change a little,” Boyett said.

The Atchafalaya River is expected to crest Jan. 23 well above flood stage, even if Morganza is not opened, officials have said.

The Morganza Spillway’s flood gates have been opened only twice — in 1973 and 2011 — since the structure was built in 1954. It’s designed to avert potential flooding along the lower Mississippi River by redirecting excess water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya’s swampy marsh lands.

The Mississippi is swollen from heavy December rainfalls in the Arkansas, Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. As of Saturday, Boyett said, the water level in Baton Rouge was at 39.5 feet — a rise of approximately a foot since Friday.

The Mississippi is forecast to rise to 43.5 feet on Jan. 18 in Baton Rouge. Flood stage, the level at which areas typically would be flooded without levee protection, is 35 feet in Baton Rouge.

In New Orleans, the river crest will be kept at 17 feet by the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway. On Saturday, Boyett said water levels were at 15.8 feet, an increase of .04 feet over a 24-hour period.

The Morganza Spillway’s opening is triggered when river levels reach 57 feet at the structure.

Bannon Rockforte said the hunting club he belongs to had at least 7 feet of water encroach their camp grounds on the northern end of the Basin when the spillway was opened in 2011.

Although more water is projected to come downriver than in 2011, different conditions in the Atchafalaya Basin this year should mean people will see flooding close to what happened almost five years ago if the spillway is opened again.

The Ramah boat landing in Iberville Parish was cluttered Saturday morning with four-wheel-drive trucks and boat trailers as sportsmen such as Rockforte spent the morning salvaging whatever they could from their camp sites in anticipation of the spillway’s operation.

“It’s gonna take a day or two for sure,” said Rockforte, a member of the East Fork Hunting Club. “It’s not fun. But it’s the price you pay when you hunt out here.”

Josh Drummond, of Success Hunting Club, didn’t have as much work to do as many of the others out Saturday. He said his club owns a house boat in the Atchafalaya that just had to be tied down with extra ropes to handle the surging currents floodwaters could bring.

“We just have to move anything that’s on the banks — like four-wheelers,” he said.

The Ramah Hunting Club saw its entire camp grounds overtaken by floodwaters back in 2011.

Club member Long said if it wasn’t for an enclave of trees surrounding one of their hunting cabins, their spartan living quarters would have been floating down the Atchafalaya.

The Atchafalaya waters already had soaked much of the club’s camp site Saturday.

Marshall McKenzie, Bubba McKenzie’s 19-year-old son, fears that if the spillway’s flood gates are opened, their camp will float away this time.

“It shouldn’t,” Long chimed in after the group was done loading a stove onto the back of a trailer. “We have it anchored down.”

Bubba McKenzie added, “If it washes away, don’t worry. We’ll have it rebuilt by October.”

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.

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