Army offers timeline of Birds Point levee restoration

Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Water flows through an intentional breech in the Birds Point levee Tuesday, May 3, 2011, in Mississippi County, Mo. The Army Corps of Engineers' blew a two-mile hole May 2 into the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri, which has flooded 130,000 acres of farmland in Missouri's Mississippi County in an effort to protect nearby Cairo, Ill. from rising floodwaters. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Calling the restoration of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway a "top priority," the U.S. Army has sent letters to Missouri's congressional delegation suggesting that a true damage assessment of the floodway can't begin until early July.

And only then, the letter warns, if rain doesn't compound the problem.

But U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson bemoaned that the letter lacked specifics and offered no other solutions in the meantime, such as a temporary levee or pumps to drain the floodway faster.

"I would have liked them to say that they have the money, they're starting immediately and that they're going to pump all the water out," said Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican who represents the 8th District.

Emerson said she knows that is not realistic. But the sooner the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can start on levee restoration, the quicker people in Mississippi and New Madrid counties can get back to their homes and their land, she said.

The letter, dated May 13, came Tuesday from Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, and was sent to Emerson and U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt. The letter was a response to a letter those lawmakers had sent to U.S. Army Secretary John M. McHugh on May 2, the date that the corps made its first breach of the levee. That decision, which Emerson opposed, diverted the swelling Mississippi River waters across 130,000 acres of farmland and damaged or destroyed as many as 100 homes to relieve pressure on the river's flood-control system.

"Restoring the floodway as soon as possible will be a top priority," Darcy wrote.

But that won't happen as quickly as some would like. Darcy estimates that it will take 45 to 60 days for the water in the floodway to recede, meaning that may not happen until July 1 at the latest. After that, it will take another 21 to 30 days for the land to dry out, no later than July 31. At that point, Darcy writes, an assessment will be made to determine the "extent of restoration that will be required."

The letter concludes this way: "The Army will take all appropriate steps to aid in the recovery from the historic flooding to the extent that existing authority and funding allow."

Emerson said she was pleased she got a response quickly, but she added that she will be having discussions about how the work might begin faster. One suggestion is to have the corps bring in pumps at some point to drain the floodway faster.

Emerson also added that she is adamantly opposed to some rumblings she's been hearing -- installing mechanical gates at the levee, such as the ones being activated in Louisiana. She worries that if it's easier to activate the floodway, the corps will use them more often.

But Emerson said she remains hopeful the restoration can happen quicker than the letter suggests.

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

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