Year later, corps stands by levee breach decision

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (AP) — Blowing up the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri last year prevented more than $112 billion in damage throughout the Mississippi River and Tributaries system, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates.

But many farmers who lost crops and about 50 families, whose homes were put underwater because of the corps’ decision to breach the levee, are not convinced the drastic move was necessary.

“I think they jumped the gun,” said U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican whose district includes the Birds Point levee area.

The Southeast Missourian (http://bit.ly/JFLRQp ) reported crop losses alone were $85 million, and the broader economic impact exceeded $156 million, according to the Food and Agriculture Research Policy Institute.

Emerson contends the corps wasn’t working off proper maps of the floodway and based its decision on incorrect hydrology.

“We have a lot of local stakeholders who know the lay of the land better than anybody else because they live and make their livelihood on it,” she said. “The locals really need to be part of the solution.”

Robert Anderson, a corps spokesman in Vicksburg, Miss., said a levee break in an unexpected area last year could have easily caused $1 billion in damage.

“The entire system was at risk,” Anderson said. “There were eminent failures. All along the system people were really at the point where the levees were about to be either overtopped or the pressure from the historic heights was just going to create a failure in an area that is not scheduled to fail.”

He said an unplanned breach could have destroyed hundreds of homes, lives and cut off major transportation arteries.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, made the decision to blow the levee May 2 to relieve pressure from the rising river and possibly save the upriver town of Cairo, Ill., from disaster. The result was 130,000 acres of farmland flooded, and about 50 families in Mississippi and New Madrid counties displaced.

Walsh waited longer than many of his colleagues thought he should have before giving the order to pump explosives into pipes embedded in the levee, according to a corps-commissioned book titled “Divine Providence — History of the 2011 Flood” by Charles A. Camillo.

“Making this decision is not easy or hard,” Walsh said. “It’s simply grave — because the decision leads to loss of property and livelihood, either in a floodway or in an area that was not designed to flood.”

The operation cost about $2 million and was plagued with problems because the water was so high that it became difficult for crews to access the levee to place the explosives. Lightning was in the area at the time, and explosives ran short, causing the corps to reduce the size of the first breach by 2,000 feet. More explosives were obtained for the second breach site, but were less effective and made a smaller hole than planned.

The corps is working on a comprehensive report on its flood-fighting efforts last year, which is due out in August, Anderson said. He said the report could cause the corps to change the way it manages the river in the future.

Emerson, Sen. Claire McCaskill and Sen. Roy Blunt all say making sure the Birds Point levee is restored to its pre-flood height of 62.5 feet is a top priority. The corps has already spent $25 million on a temporary levee in place now at 55 feet, Anderson said. The entire Mississippi River and Tributaries system sustained more than $2 billion in damage from last year’s flood.

Emerson has inserted language into the House Fiscal Year 2013 Energy and Water Appropriations bill requiring the repairs to be made by Dec. 31.

Emerson insists that future management decisions need to include input from local residents, including on issues such as how the floodway is activated. For instance, she noted that the Mississippi River Commission decided explosives were to be used.

Emerson believes there are alternative ways to activate the floodway such as allowing natural overtopping, which occurred in some places along the levee earlier on the day it was detonated.

“It is very hard to get the corps of engineers to be what I consider forward thinking,” Emerson said. “A better way of looking at it would be to have two or three alternatives to look at the precise moment when you have to make a decision.”

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Information from: Southeast Missourian, http://www.semissourian.com

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