Lack of flood control is not acceptable

Saturday, September 29, 2007

By Jo Ann Emerson

On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project "an ill-conceived project that cannot be justified either economically or environmentally," but discussed neither how the federal effort to close Missouri's only remaining gap in Mississippi River flood protection was conceived nor how it is justified.

St. John's Bayou-New Madrid was born in the Flood Control Act of 1954. People in Southeast Missouri tired of cleaning up after preventable floods repeatedly ravaged their homes, businesses and farms. Starting in the 1920s, they saw floodwalls, levees, pumping stations, berms and other flood-control measures implemented in river communities to the north and south. In Pinhook and East Prairie, however, the floods continued. No one came to build a levee or pumping station for them.

Late Pinhook resident Jim Robinson testified to the U.S. Senate in 2002: "If I go north to St. Louis I see fine homes surrounded by big levees, or if I go south to Memphis I see that same thing. Those people have been able to build their levees and protect their homes. I don't want to take that away from them, I just want the same thing for us."

Since the conception of St. John's Bayou-New Madrid, the project has been delayed several times by environmental extremists who do not live, work or raise their families in the affected area. Meanwhile, baseless delays in construction have been overshadowed by even more floods.

Schoolchildren ride cattle trailers to school. Sewer systems back up and overflow into homes. Roads and bridges are washed over and out. Sinkholes swallow up land and structures. Life for residents in Southeast Missouri becomes fraught with danger.

Yet this flood-control project is only difficult to justify if you somehow value the density of human life over the life (and rights) of the individual.

The Mississippi River once routinely flooded its banks in St. Louis. Now, 100-year (in some places 500-year) flood protection is standard in the city, thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Urban areas get top priority and great protection. But there are gaps in rural areas.

Can government decide there are parts of America so valuable to wildlife that citizens should uproot their homes and lives? Should we say shame on the residents of Mississippi, Scott, and New Madrid counties for choosing to live among their families, friends and farmland, where they were raised and where their children call home? Should we usher them to urban areas where flood protection has already survived the criticism of environmentalists?

There may not be a majestic skyline to Pinhook or East Prairie, but the people there are as entitled to flood protection as any city dweller.

Houses fill with sewer water, farmland goes under, and people are both sad and angry because they have become so accustomed to it. Now, they may have to watch the corps dismantle a $7 million start on the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project. Nothing is being done to stop the next flood in Southeast Missouri, and that is not acceptable to its citizens or to me.

Jo Ann Emerson of Cape Girardeau represents Missouri's 8th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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