BUTTE LAROSE, La. — Army Corps of Engineers Col. Ed Fleming leaned over a podium and warned the crowd gathered at a volunteer fire station that where they were standing was projected to be swamped by up to 15 feet of water from Mississippi River flooding. The crowd let out a collective gasp.
"From the ground?" an incredulous resident shouted at the meeting Thursday.
"From the ground," replied Fleming, head of the corps' New Orleans district.
To try to protect heavily populated Baton Rouge and New Orleans from the bulging Mississippi River, federal engineers are close to opening a massive spillway that would flood hundreds of thousands of acres in Louisiana Cajun country.
With that threat looming, some 25,000 people in an area known for small farms, fish camps, crawfish and a drawling French dialect are hurriedly packing their things and worrying that their homes and way of life might soon be drowned.
The corps could open the Morganza floodway north of Baton Rouge as early as this weekend, a move that would relieve pressure on the city's levee system.
Opening the gates for the first time in 38 years will unleash the Mississippi on a wild ride south to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya River and divert floodwater from the river into the basin's swamplands, backwater lakes and bayous. Several thousand homes would be at risk of flooding.
Even if engineers decide not to open the spillway, no one seems to doubt that a major flood is bound for Butte LaRose, Krotz Springs, the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City and other swampland communities in the Atchafalaya Basin.
The Morganza and the nearby Old River Control Structure were built in the 1950s to keep the Mississippi on its current course through New Orleans, one of the world's busiest ports. If the river rises much higher at New Orleans, the Coast Guard said Thursday it would consider restrictions on shipping, including potentially closing the channel to the largest, heaviest ships.
Shipping interests have pushed for the opening of the Morganza, saying the move would keep ships cruising. If the river closes, history shows the costs grow quickly into staggering figures.
In 2008, a 100-mile stretch of the river was closed for six days after a tugboat pushing a barge collided with a tanker ship, spilling about 500,000 gallons of fuel and stacking up ships. The Port of New Orleans, citing an economic impact study it commissioned, estimated the shutdown cost the national economy up to $275 million a day.
For the people of this region, river flooding and hurricanes are familiar hazards. Floodwaters damaged or destroyed many homes and fishing camps in Butte LaRose in 1973, the last time the corps opened the Morganza.
Maxim Doucet was born that year. His parents stayed put, even when the floodwaters started lapping at the rear of their grocery store.
Doucet has no intention of leaving town this time, either. The water didn't seep into the store when the flood gauge hit 27 feet in 1973, so Doucet can't believe the center of town will be submerged in 15 feet of water.
While most of his neighbors were packing up, Doucet deployed a team of workers and heavy machinery to erect a 6-foot levee around his home on the banks of the Atchafalaya River. A dump truck hauled in roughly 1,000 cubic yards of clay for a bulldozer and front-end loader to fashion a protective ring around the rear of Doucet's three-story house.
"I figured I'd give Mother Nature a run for her money," said Doucet, who owns a construction company called Monster Heavy Haulers.
On the other side of Butte LaRose's main street, Russell Calais nursed a beer as his family loaded all his belongings into moving trucks. Affectionately described by one of his daughters as "a typical bull-headed Cajun," he didn't know they would be coming to evacuate him and his wife, Judy.
"We didn't give him an option," said his daughter, Konie Calais Heard of Lafayette.
Calais said he had planned to wait until the floodwaters rose high enough to float his homemade boat, so he could patrol the neighborhood and protect his property.
"I made up my mind I wasn't going to leave," he said. "After I sat down and drank about 10 or 12 Coors, I said, 'Well, it's time.'"
Water may drive these families out of their homes, but it's also what will bring them back to repair and rebuild. Five generations of Pamela Guidry's family have called Butte LaRose home. Her father was a commercial fisherman. Her brothers catch crawfish for money. She worked at a seafood-packing business.
"I didn't want my kids growing up in a city. I wanted them to learn how to live the hard way," she said. "They had to learn how to survive on their own down here. Once you're out of Butte LaRose, you're out in society, out of our own little world."
Guidry said her family weathered the 1973 floods and the great flood of 1927 without any thought of leaving town for good.
"The water receded. They cleaned up. Their lives went on," she said.
The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has not announced any plans to cut short commercial or recreational fishing seasons in anticipation of Morganza's opening, but a spokeswoman said officials will monitor the situation.
If the corps gets permission to open half of Morganza's 125 gates, water from the Mississippi is expected to arrive in Butte LaRose in about one day. Within three days, it would reach Morgan City, a community of about 12,000.
Morgan City Mayor Timothy Matte said the main floodwalls should be able to handle the river's frontal attack, but he was less certain about the back levees that protect the city from floodwaters that collect in lakes north of town. He said the waters could reach within a foot of the top of those levees.
"It is very close to the top," he said.
On Thursday, two shipyards were closed in preparation for the arrival of high water, but the town's riverboat casino remained open. In Butte LaRose, inmates from the St. Martin Parish jail filled sandbags for residents to pick up. Some wondered if it was a futile gesture.
Teresa Meyerer said basin communities are being treated like "sacrificial lambs."
"They say it's for the good of the metropolitan areas," she said. "I've seen what they do in metropolitan areas. They pave paradise and put up a parking lot. Is the destruction worth it for dollars?"
Meyerer fought back tears as she packed her belongings in plastic bags and loaded some of her cherished paintings and art supplies into the back of her car. The camp she bought in Butte LaRose 13 years ago is her "salvation." On weekend retreats from her Baton Rouge home, she can fish off a deck and watch eagles hunt.
"I doubt if I'll ever come back here," she said.
As people gathered at the Butte LaRose volunteer fire station to hear Fleming deliver his ominous forecast of so much water, a few skeptics scoffed, but many were shaken.
"It's over with," muttered Pierre Watermeyer. "That's it. There's no sense in pretending."