Corps general gives order to repair Birds Point levee

Thursday, June 16, 2011
The breached Birds Point levee is shown Wednesday, June 15, 2011 beyond a washed-out section of a restricted road that connects with Mississippi County Road 301. (Fred Lynch)

Six weeks ago, Southeast Missouri farmers watched as their levee was breached, allowing in a swollen Mississippi River to wash away their land, property and livelihoods.

So when word came Wednesday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was preparing to "immediately" repair the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, they were more than pleased.

"They're doing back flips as we speak," said Mississippi County Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett. "It's a temporary levee, it's not a permanent fix. But we're so glad that something is finally going to be done."

While corps officials did not return repeated calls seeking confirmation, Gov. Jay Nixon announced the news late in the day. In a statement, he said that he had spoken with Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, the commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley Division and the man who had ordered the floodway activation May 2.

Walsh told Nixon that he had given orders Wednesday to mobilize the Memphis District to rebuild the three breach points in the frontline earthen levee to a height of 51 feet, which is short of its pre-blast level of 60.5 feet. But Bennett said that's enough to offer the farmers, many who are already back at work in the fields, flood protection to keep the waters at bay.

"If the area were to flood again, it would put a lot of people out of business," Bennett said.

Nixon said Walsh's decision was "absolutely critical" for farmers in the region, who need adequate protection to proceed with planting a crop during the current growing season. Last week, Nixon wrote to Walsh to underscore the importance of quick action to provide protection for Missouri farmers along the levee to allow them to plant crops this season.

Another factor that may have influenced Walsh's decision was that the money to do the work seemed to be on its way. An amendment before the U.S. House would set aside $1 billion for the corps to repair levees throughout the country that were wrecked by the massive -- and in some places record-setting -- flooding this spring.

"I think they were much more confident knowing they were going to have the money to do it with," Bennett said.

More than half that amount, $589.5 million, would be designated at U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson's request to rebuild flood-protection systems along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, which includes the Southeast Missouri levee at Birds Point.

"There's no doubt this is really big," Emerson said. "We presented to them what we wanted to have and the final analysis is that this would at least be a first down payment to restore Birds Point. It exceeded my expectations."

Corps officials haven't released a cost estimate for a temporary fix of the levee or a permanent restoration. But Bennett said the county and levee districts had made estimates of anywhere from $2 million to $4 million.

As chairwoman of the House financial services subcommittee, Emerson offered the amendment to the House Energy and Water Appropriations Act of 2012. The amendment was agreed to in the House Appropriations Committee and added to legislation which should be considered by the full House this month, Emerson said.

If approved by the House and Senate and signed by President Barack Obama, the funding would be available Oct. 1, the first day of the 2012 fiscal year. Emerson is working on a parallel track to get funding for repairs included in a potential funding measure for the current fiscal year, she said.

"I never want to say what I think the Senate's going to do," Emerson said. "But I do know with the total number of disasters we're dealing with, the general consensus is we do need to get something done."

Bennett said the Birds Point levee should be a priority and he called it the most damaged of all the systems up and down the Mississippi River. Other flood-protection systems simply called for opening gates, he said.

"Us? They blew us to kingdom come," he said.

Other public officials have asked for the federal government to put up the money to pay for costs for repairing public infrastructure damaged by flooding. Both Sen. Roy Blunt and Gov. Jay Nixon have requested the federal government pay 100 percent of the cost of fixing public infrastructure and public buildings damaged by spring flooding and the devastating Joplin tornado.


Pertinent address:

Wyatt, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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