When Pictures Won’t Lie

Mississippi River floodwaters Dow Chemical plant

Rising floodwaters of the Mississippi River approaching Dow Chemical plant in Cancer Alley at Morrisonville south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photo taken 05.17.11 GPS: 30° 31’93″ N at 91° 21’56″ W

“I want the truth” – “You can’t handle the truth”

Seeing is believing.  Someone just sent me more photos of the Mississippi River’s ability to inundate the lives of the people who have decided to erect their futures on the floodplains of history.  About a dozen images that could be divided into two categories – 1) the flooding of the Mississippi River below Vicksburg, and 2) the flooding of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg.

What one immediately notices, besides lots of cafe au late colored water, is the scale of flooding and the visual impact on human lives and infrastructure – group #1 not much, group #2 considerable.

A few weeks ago I was on assignment in California covering the Amgen Tour of California pro bicycle race.  Before I could watch the first stage pedal off from the start-line I was asked to fly to the Mississippi River’s lower delta and document the flooding disaster.  The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, at the panic urging of the State of Louisiana, had opened the spillways at a couple of sites – Bonnet Carre and Morganza – as well as the Old River Control System built after the nightmarish 1927 floods–which 2011 waters were approaching.  If the spillways weren’t opened New Orleans and Baton Rouge were in waters way.  Perhaps more importantly were the chemical factories and oil refineries between the two cities – infamously known as Cancer Alley.  No one was saying it, but the fear had to be that if the Mississippi burst its banks (or Corp levees) the toxic gumbo in this stretch would pour all over the Big Easy – and the entire Mississippi Delta wetlands.  Frankly that would make the BP oil disaster look like kids’ play.

bauxite waste at an aluminum manufacturing plant.

Gumbo toxin - bauxite waste at an aluminum manufacturing plant - potential poison in the floodwaters of the lower Mississippi River, Cancer Alley, Darrow, Louisiana (above and below.)

bauxite waste at an aluminum manufacturing plant.

Unfortunately, for the client, the Japanese-like tsunami wave imagined never arrived.  The reality was more like a slowly leaking bathtub.  Visual, but not horrific.  A couple days of aerial haven’t seen much viewing.  And that’s sad.  Not so much because I need to have my photos published, rather we should using them to illustrate a point.  Expand on the discussion.  Prepare for a future nightmare of true tsunami proportions.

Unfortunately, these pictures just didn’t lie enough, unlike those of the general media and the sets being passed around the web (see my comments in Flooding Fiction.)  As an environmental photojournalist that’s my concern every time I work – the real issues are subtle, they visually bio-accumulate, and the images alarm quietly.  We have become a citizenry of poor listeners, and poorer seers.  Blinded by all but the brightest images.

My thanks to pilot Tom Hutchins and SouthWings.org for making these aerials possible.

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