Faced with a Mississippi River cresting at some of the highest levels since the 1927 flood, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza spillway late Saturday afternoon (May 14).

Water flowing through the gates at the emergency flood control structure is expected to cover about 3,000 square miles in central and South Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin under as much as 25 feet of water.

Opening the gates was necessary to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from flood waters, Corps of Engineers officials said. They were urging an estimated 25,000 persons in harms way to complete their evacuation of the floodway.

State officials had expressed concern about whether federal crop insurance policies would be in force if the Corps opened the floodgates at the spillway, but Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain, D.V.M., said USDA has guaranteed that Morganza Spillway farmers whose crops have been damaged by flooding caused by the Mississippi River will be eligible for crop insurance payments.

The ruling includes farmers in the larger Atchafalaya Basin area below the spillway whose crops will also be inundated by water after the Saturday opening of the Morganza Spillway. Farmers who are unable to plant but purchased crop insurance will also be eligible for prevented planting payments in accordance with their policies, Strain said. 

Shortly after the Corps opened the Morganza floodgates for the first time they had been operated in 38 years, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued the following joint statement:

“Our hearts go out to all of those affected by the flooding in Louisiana's Morganza Spillway. While the Army Corps is responsible for levee maintenance and control and the decision to open the Morganza Spillway, FEMA, the USDA and the entire federal family are focused on ensuring the safety and recovery of the people and communities we serve.”

The two officials said they had been working closely with the state of Louisiana for weeks to prepare for this event.

"Due to the overwhelming amount of water flowing down the Mississippi, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to open the Morganza Spillway as part of a flood risk management plan designed to minimize damage to property, structures and to protect millions of people from historic flood levels,” they said.

“Even before the decision was made to breach the levee, USDA has been working in concert to coordinate with our federal partners to evaluate how we can provide relief to farmers and others impacted by this natural disaster. FEMA and USDA are ready to support the state so they can help begin the road to recovery as quickly as possible. USDA agencies that provide flood and disaster assistance are offering support to those in need and standing by to assist others.”

Vilsack said he wanted to assure all producers who purchased crop insurance and whose crops have been damaged by the flooding, that they would be eligible for crop insurance indemnities in accordance with the provisions of their crop insurance policies.

“To all of those producers who are unable to plant, but have purchased crop insurance, you will be eligible for prevented planting payments in accordance with your policy,” he said.

"In preparation for flooding, under the leadership of Secretary Napolitano, FEMA has already embedded staff, including top officials, in the state's emergency operations center to coordinate closely with our state and local partners and has pre-positioned commodities in strategic locations that can be deployed to assist Louisiana and other states quickly, if needed.”

Strain said an estimated 15,256 acres of crops in the spillway and basin and another 2,853 in the fore bay area between the spillway gates and Mississippi River will be lost. 

“We’ve been pushing hard for this declaration,” Strain said. “We wanted to make sure our farmers got the same deal as the Missouri farmers who lost their crops when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers artificially breeched the levee to save lives.”

Strain said the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry coordinated with Governor Bobby Jindal and his staff, USDA, FEMA and the Corps of Engineers on the issue.

“I want to say thank you to Secretary Vilsack, Administrator Fugate, the Corps of Engineers and Governor Jindal for working so hard to get a positive resolution on this issue for our Louisiana producers,” Strain said.