Corps shifts focus to East Prairie after final Birds Point breach

Friday, May 6, 2011
Jill Bock/Standard Democrat Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh with the Army Corps of Engineers talks at a news conference Thursday, May 5, 2011, at New Madrid, Mo., following the corps announcement that the second outflow crevasse in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway had been opened.

NEW MADRID, Mo. -- With the final floodway breach completed Thursday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said its focus will shift to East Prairie, a community struggling to keep the backwater at bay from a drainage system that has become saturated from 22 inches of rain over the last two weeks.

The corps has a team of hydrologists and engineers looking quickly for an answer to backwater that threatens to invade not only East Prairie but also nearby Interstate 55, said Col. Vernie Reichling, commander of the corps' Memphis District.

"We're working closely with East Prairie to try to find a solution to try and prevent any backwater from flooding that town," Reichling said Thursday at a news conference following the 2:30 p.m. blast that completed the activation of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

"It's become our No. 1 concern," he said.

Four pumping stations and sandbagging efforts are barely able to keep up with water that is coming in from St. John's Bayou, he said. On Thursday, southbound I-55 was reduced to one lane for more than a mile near the pump stations. The median and ditches on both sides of the interstate were nearly overflowing.

The corps is watching the floodway closely, Reichling said. Near East Prairie, the water had reached topographical elevation points of 298 feet and it would become a much greater problem if it reached 305 to 307 feet. That's not the same as depth of the water in the floodway.

"But we need to keep the pool level at a reasonable level," he said.

That would allow some of the backwater to drain into the floodway, he said. If it's full or nearly full, the backwater from the drainage system would creep back into the town. Reichling said that his team has not reached a solution yet, but he understands that, with more rain forecast for Saturday, time is of the essence.

"Every street in East Prairie has water on it," he said. "There's nowhere else for that water to go. That's our challenge now."

Mississippi County Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett, who also is from East Prairie, said he has discussed the issue with officials with the corps. His understanding is that the corps is looking for pumps to move some of the backwater from the area into the floodway.

While only a few East Prairie homes have gotten water into them, it's been a headache and a worry, Bennett said. On Wednesday night, crews cleaned out a drainage ditch, which has relieved some pressure, he said.

"We just can't take any more water in," Bennett said. "We're the lowest elevation in the county. Everybody's water comes through us. The higher that floodway gets, the harder it is for our water to get out of our community. It's really a mess."

Mayor Kevin Mainord said backwater has been a problem in East Prairie for years but has been exacerbated by the heavy rain. Community leaders feel like it's somewhat under control, but it could become problematic if the forecast bears out.

"We're one good rain away from having some real problems," Mainord said. "If the corps finds an answer, it would be a tremendous help. It would be encouraging to know that if we get a five-inch rain, the water's not going to drown us here."

Meanwhile, the corps completed its activation of the floodway, blasting a second 5,500-foot hole in the levee near the the floodway's southern end, about 10 miles from New Madrid. Now waters are flowing in from the Mississippi River near the northern end at Birds Point and back into the river from the two breaches near its southern end. Some water is also escaping through a 1,500-foot pre-existing gap near New Madrid.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, the president of the Mississippi River Commission who ordered the activation of the floodway, said Thursday that the floodway was "operating as designed." So far, he said, the floodway activation has reduced the stress on the system and that flood gauges at Cairo, Ill., Paducah, Ky., and Cape Girardeau were lower than they were predicted to be at this time.

The activation of the floodway has not been without hiccups, however. The plan originally called for all three breaches to be completed within a 24-hour window. But the last breach came three days after the first, and Walsh blamed poor weather conditions and running out of explosives after the first two breaches.

But the corps was able to quickly acquire another 100,000 pounds of blasting agent, bringing the total amount of explosives used for the three breaches to 276 tons, a corps official said.

Walsh said Thursday his team was headed to Vicksburg, Miss., to continue the flood fight downriver, including the possible opening of a second floodway in Louisiana.

But Reichling emphasized that a 14-man team was staying behind to monitor the floodway levees.

"They'll be driving and walking these levees on a daily basis," Reichling said. "They'll be looking for underseepage and making sure this floodway operates exactly as it's supposed to."

Members of the U.S. Geological Survey will also be on hand and they will be deploying survey boats to monitor water flows within the floodway, Reichling said.

Teams in Memphis will be determining what the next steps will be, Walsh said.

"We're at the conclusion of this part, this phase of the operation of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway," Walsh said. "But when the flow passes into the Gulf of Mexico, we'll be back and looking at engineering solutions to put things back to the way they were."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

New Madrid, MO

Water flows into the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway area Tuesday, May 3, 2010.

East Prairie, MO

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