From her home window, Belinda Constant, mayor of Gretna, Louisiana, watches the mighty Mississippi flow by. Beyond it are the sparkling lights of New Orleans. She views both warily these days. New Orleans is a hot spot for Covid-19, and thousands of cases locally means she’s working with a skeletal staff under lockdown conditions. Meanwhile, the Mississippi has risen more than a foot in the past week, triggering emergency flood measures. And the rains keep coming.
Gretna itself is below sea level, and currently some 11 feet below the surging river. All that’s keeping the city dry is a levee built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Constant says she prays every day that it doesn’t rain any more, or that one of the enormous cargo ships making its way down the river doesn’t get caught in the currents and swept into the barrier. “It is scary. Everybody is so invested in one pandemic now,” she says. “When you think about resources put toward this crisis I don’t know where the resources are going to come or how long will it take to address another crisis.”
Louisiana, along with the rest of the Mississippi Valley region, is in the middle of its annual wet season, which usually peaks in April. This year’s floods are predicted to be more moderate than 2019’s, which covered a record expanse of 19 states, starting in January and lasted for an unprecedented nine months and affected 14 million people.
Colin Wellenkamp is the executive director of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative, which coordinates and organizes towns along the entire river corridor. He says Mayor Constant’s anxieties are shared by many local officials. “We are averaging a 100- to 200-year flood event annually somewhere on the river,” he says. As a result, many towns’ emergency capabilities were already tapped out before Covid-19, he says.