Port of Natchez 2019
Mississippi River Basin
Mississippi River Basin
Port of Natchez Admin Asst
Alison M. Jones
NWNL Director & Photographer
The Port of Natchez, Mississippi
Current High Flooding
Flood Impacts on Farmers
Local Flood Controls
USACE / The Morganza Spillway
Flood Impacts at the Port
Mississippi River Pleasures
All images © Alison M Jones. All rights reserved.
Karen Baker has worked for 3 years with Anthony B. Hauer, Port Director for 38 years. Just south of Natchez, this port provides shippers direct access to 100’s of ports in over 50 countries. It offers cargo docks, a liquid-transfer dock, barge loading and unloading, freight warehousing, heavy lifts and other services. From her 2nd floor office window, Karen sees many moods of the Mississippi. It can be calming or fierce, graced by the Delta Queen and hot air balloons, and usually full of barges! From her home across the river, she, her family and friends enjoy the Mississippi from their own little party barge.
The Port of Natchez, Mississippi
NWNL Hello Karen. Thank you for welcoming me to the Port of Natchez.
I’m here documenting the Mighty Mississippi, all that drains into this river, and of course this spring’s flood. I often photograph to compare and contrast what I see. This morning I said, “Well, I don’t need to go far to do that. From the bridge off the Natchez bluffs to Louisiana’s flat-pancake plains, there’s plenty of contrast!”
I’m also here to document the values of the Mississippi River for humans and wildlife – and commerce plays an important role! So, thank you for filling in while Anthony Hauer, the Executive Port Director is out of town.
KAREN BAKER Welcome! To explain the port’s purpose, we unload and load barges with various commodities, especially grains. We do metal, rocks and feeds – corn, soybean pellets and soybeans. We handle all that we can, with trucking and warehouses for most of what we barge.
The barge over there has soybean pellets on it. We’ll unload it tomorrow and then house it over on the other side of the river. Another barge has phosphate on it.
NWNL Are these grains, metals, rocks and feeds locally produced or quarried or produced? And where do they go – down to New Orleans and out the Gulf internationally?
KAREN BAKER Usually all go to New Orleans. The phosphate and soybeans all go overseas. Our lumber mainly goes to China, so we’re waiting to see how it all goes, given this flooding.
NWNL How high is the river now?
KAREN BAKER I think it’s now 57′ because it was 56.8 yesterday.
NWNL It’s still coming up! When is the crest expected and at what height?
KAREN BAKER They were saying it would crest at 59′, but now they say 58′. This morning, a guy in St. Louis said they crested today. His other office is in Little Rock, Arkansas where the levee busted and drained that lake. They fixed it and got the lake back, which is amazing.
NWNL They repaired it in the middle of the flood?
KAREN BAKER Yeah. I haven’t verified that; but if true, that’s good, even though the people were upset they lost their lake. During saturations like this that go on for so many days, you don’t know what could happen – or what one mound of dirt could do. The Mississippi is called “mighty” for a reason.
NWNL Were you here in during the 2011 flood?
KAREN BAKER I wasn’t here, but I’ve seen other floods with logs, long logs, rushing downstream, It’s just amazing how swift this current is. I saw guys out there in little bitty boats, turned over with no life vest. I said, “No, no, no!” This year I’ve seen plenty of logs and trees with their whole root systems – but no roofs this year, yet.
NWNL I know farmers work on the margin, and often fear they’ll have to get out of the business. If flooding prevents profits, then what happens? Is the land they have farmed taken over by the big conglomerates?
KAREN BAKER Most lease their land. Big-power, wealthy people own farmland, including Oprah Winfrey. So, they won’t lose out due to this flood. It’s the individual farmers that are going to hurt – not the landowners, some of whom also have duck blinds.
NWNL So, the people who lose in floods like this are the farmers who work that land they lease? If they go under, they can’t continue. Then the land will be leased to some other entity or farmer?
KAREN BAKER Farmers do what they can with the lands. Many wetlands in Louisiana are flooded now, and most farmers we deal with are from there, not the Mississippi side.
NWNL That makes sense, given the local geology. You can’t farm on these eastern bluffs or their ravines. What are farmers saying about this flood?
KAREN BAKER I have only spoken to Jay White, broker for the soybeans he purchases from farmers. Those that couldn’t plant due to the flood, have until June 30th. If they can’t plant by then, they’ll have to claim insurance. But many of them don’t do insurance…
NWNL How likely is it that farmers will be able to plant within two weeks?
KAREN BAKER Probably not, because right now this river shows we’re still going to have a lot of water on our farmland for a while.
NWNL Will this flood change any farming practices or processes? One answer I got to that question was, “Nope, not unless the levees break.” That seemed a bit glib, but is it true?
KAREN BAKER The levees have been saturated for over 160 days, so we’re worried about the levees. Even though the flood isn’t topping them, will they hold with so much saturation? If drive down, you’ll see many and all kinds of boils.
Local Flood Controls
NWNL There have been many solutions to reducing flood impacts. A new one for me is the role of “reverse wells.” Can you explain how they work?
KAREN BAKER Two, three weeks ago, I first learned we were doing that. They said drilling would relieve pressure. But why would they walk so many feet away from the levee to drill a deep-hole well for relief? I don’t understand.
NWNL I heard about them two days ago when photographing the flood from a helicopter. I saw many reverse wells along the levee edges, very close together. As water rises against the levee, I’d think it wants to seep under and through, creating boils on the other side. But with these deep “reverse wells” water moves down, rather than through a levee.
KAREN BAKER Yes, that’s how he explained it.
NWNL Is that a new technique?
KAREN BAKER Like I said, I hadn’t heard of it until this year. I live on the Louisiana side, and I’m okay if the levee breaks, only asking how soon will I have to get out? They say, “Well, when you hear that levee breaking, get while you can.” That doesn’t comfort me at all. And the way this flood is going, it might be bad before it gets good.
NWNL You’re the first person I’ve talked to who’s had any concern. I keep asking, where’s the concern? But everybody’s calm, saying, “Well, we’ll worry if the levees break.”
KAREN BAKER You need to worry before. Some folks already have seepage through their levees, so they’re bagging. Some evacuated after putting stuff that was getting wet in a warehouse. A Louisiana church that has camps had to move their stuff out. Already, the Port has sand and has done lots of bagging. The Port is okay because we’re higher. next door the Coast Guard is low and already has seepage, so they’ve sandbagged the building’s entrance. I don’t know why they didn’t build it differently years ago, because we had lots of water flooding in 2011.
NWNL It is ironic that the Coast Guard didn’t build against high flood scenarios.
KAREN BAKER They just take precautions. Today they came back with more sandbags and pallets so they can survive a slightly higher level of flooding.
NWNL Large HESCO baskets are in Natchez under the hill where it’s flooding. Why wouldn’t the Coast Guard also use HESCO baskets? Aren’t they more efficient?
KAREN BAKER Yes, and the Coast Guard uses some.
NWNL But why do they just use regular old white sandbags at their front door?
KAREN BAKER So they can still step over those flatter bags to get in. They use the bigger Hesco baskets down around the boats.
KAREN BAKER Have you seen Old River Control? It is part of the flood control system managed by the USACE (US Army Corps of Engineers) – and it holds a lot of water. It’s about an hour away. You’ll think you’ll never get there, because it’s at the end of the world.
NWNL Yesterday I overflew the area in a helicopter and, and we flew right over the Morganza Spillway. To me, it looked full, but the pilot said it’s about 70 feet high now with another 20 feet free board, so it sounds like it’ll be okay. They said they’d open it – and then changed their mind.
KAREN BAKER They’re not going to open it up. There’s no need.
NWNL I’ve heard two opinions on why the USACE reversed their plan. One was they don’t want to open Morganza Spillway because when last done in 2011, the river almost got away from them and took over. Apparently, they had terrible trouble trying to control it. But if that concerns them, why did they specify they’d open it June 2nd or June 6th? Somebody else said, “Well, they wanted to use it, but last time the mechanics didn’t work. So, they cancelled.”
KAREN BAKER I’ve heard both those comments. In 1993 they said its opening changed the current of the Mississippi. Maybe that’s why they don’t want to open it now. It might even change the current back. Who knows?
NWNL You say not all this year’s snow melt hasn’t come down this year. So why do they say the crest will only be one inch more, and thus no need to open Morganza Spillway?
KAREN BAKER That’s exactly what we wonder, because even last week they were still getting snow upstream – in Illinois. We’re not through. I’m telling you, we’re not out of the woods yet.
Even in areas they’re concerned about with boils, USACE is not releasing water at its spillways. Those decision-makers just fear people running and panicking.
NWNL Yet it seems to me preparation is nine-tenths of preventing tragedy.
KAREN BAKER Hey, you can see all the stuff that just comes in and floats right on by, and it gathers. There are buoys here and trashcans from state parks. We find basketballs, footballs, and all kinds of ice chests. It’s just unreal what is coming and going.
They don’t know timing, so I guess they think they can warn us fast enough. In 2011, everybody moved furniture out and tried to get possessions to safe grounds; and then it never happened. But in 2011 levees weren’t holding as much pressure as we have now – nor for this long. This one has just hung on, so we don’t know what’s to come.
NWNL When that barge of soybeans over there comes in tomorrow, where does it go? What happens, given flood conditions?
KAREN BAKER We’re not able to tie it off. We can place three barges, but not right now, because we’re tying up way down here, since this is the only pylon out of water right now. Today the water was so swift that the tugboat had to stay with the barge. We tried to tie off today, but couldn’t since it was too swift. So they parked it over there and we’re going to try again tomorrow.
NWNL That suggests the water is swifter today than it has been?
KAREN BAKER We have more currents today. But days like that come, and then it’ll calm down so we can work. The Mississippi, though, has a mind of its own. You can sit here and watch it be as calm as glass for hours; and then within two or three minutes, it’s boiling again. It’s just an amazing river to me. It definitely has a mind of its own.
NWNL It has different personalities on different days?
KAREN BAKER Oh, yeah – just like us, for sure.
NWNL Do you go out in boats on the Mississippi?
KAREN BAKER Yes; we have a little party barge; so we take out guests who enjoy just touring and feeling the river.
NWNL What do you enjoy most about the river?
KAREN BAKER I love the calmness of it. When I’m stressed, I turn around and enjoy the view and the many different things that I can see. The barges and the loads that come by are amazing. It’s unreal how many barges they tow and what they tow.
NWNL That scene creates a profile of this country.
KAREN BAKER I’ll wheel around when the Delta Queen is coming by. It’s just beautiful. One day we had all three of them. We also get just loads of hot-air balloons right over the Mississippi. When they do fireworks, I bring my grandkids over here to the Port to see them. They ooh and ahh over the reflections in the river.
NWNL What wildlife do you see here?
KAREN BAKER I’ve seen otters and alligators. We see carp right now, and I saw lots of gar last week. Today pelicans were watching water snakes flipping over out there. The pelicans float swiftly down the middle of the river as fast as they can, and then they just sit there like they’re asleep. Suddenly, they rise up; fly a bit; and then come back to do it all over again.
In February I video’d a huge eagle land and magnificently spread its wings. Two weeks ago, hundreds and hundreds of swallows went crazy out there. Then a hawk swooped over them.
There are also turtles and alligators – and you can see turtles floating downriver.
NWNL Karen, thank you so much for your sharing your knowledge and love of the Mississippi River – certainly a mighty river!
Posted by NWNL on September 5, 2023
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.
Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.
All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.