Corps of Engineers to start work on rebuilding levee today

Thursday, June 16, 2011 ~ Updated 7:56 PM
A farmer works the field just west of the breached Birds Point levee Wednesday, June 15, 2011. A washed-out section of a restricted road to Mississippi County Road 301 is in the foreground. (Fred Lynch)

The rebuilding begins.

Hours after Gov. Jay Nixon announced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would immediately rebuild the Birds Point-New Madrid levee, it appears the agency isn't wasting any time coming through on its word.

Corps spokesman Jim Pogue on Thursday afternoon said crews were expected to begin moving earth by late in the day.

"Needless to say, we're anxious to get started," he said.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, gave the go-ahead Wednesday, issuing orders to mobilize the corps' Memphis District to rebuild to 51 feet the three breach points in the frontline levee.

Pogue called the project an "interim fix."

"This will get us to some level of increased protection as decisions are made about funding and that sort of thing," he said.

Corps spokesman Bob Anderson said the interim project is expected to be wrapped up in October or November, depending on the weather.

The corps still plans to fully rebuild the levee, restoring it to its previous state before crews breached it and allowed a swollen Mississippi River to burst through and drown some 130,000 acres of fertile farmland in the Mississippi County floodway. That ultimate restoration campaign, scheduled for completion by March -- the start of Missouri's flood season -- is contingent on congressional debate and funding. There has been talk of flood gates in levee system, something that concerns landowners who fear that might give license to the corps to operate the floodway at will.

The reset timeline is on pace with a message from a corps commander late last month. Col. Vernie Reichling tweeted that engineers were developing alternatives to reset the levee by March 1.

That March deadline was not what the washed-out farmers and homeowners in the 130,000-acre floodway wanted to hear, said J. Michael Ponder, a Cape Girardeau lawyer representing dozens of people who have joined a federal lawsuit against the corps, in a Southeast Missourian article on May 24.

"That is different from we'd all hope," he said of the original timeline. "If the corps fails to replace the levee this summer, they will compound the misery that's already been inflicted on those folks because it will be at continued risk for flooding until the levee is repaired."

Ponder could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The mood of floodway farmers lifted late Wednesday with word of the corps' interim plan.

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

Anderson said the troubles upstream, impacted by the flooding on the Missouri River, moved the Southeast Missouri levee up higher on the corps' to-do list. The Ohio River flood stage at Cairo was 34.7 feet Thursday morning, forecast to move down by nearly a half-foot by the end of the weekend, according to the National Weather Center River Forecast Center.

Pogue said the restoration campaign begins in New Madrid at what the corps bills as Inflow-Outflow Crevasse No. 1, the last position on the levee detonated. He could not give specifics on the next step.

"Crews will be getting in there, smoothing the crevasse where the levee was opened up and raise the existing remnants of the levee to a point that would allow protection at 51 feet on the Cairo [Ill.] gauge, and allow us to No. 1, build a safe road for our vehicles to drive the whole levee, and No. 2, provide a level of protection that will help the local landowners make decisions on planting," Pogue said.

When the Cairo gauge hit 60.5 feet, on its way to 61.72 feet, the corps said it was forced to detonate the levee.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, said the call to rebuild comes as a relief to her constituents, although it comes much later than it should have.

"Our producers have in many cases taken on considerable risk by putting a crop in on their land in the floodway. The temporary levee is vital to protecting them against further losses as a result of the Corps' destruction of the levee at Birds Point," the Cape Girardeau Republican said in a news release.

"I don't think they should take a day off until the Birds Point levee is restored to its original condition," she said.

Leftover stimulus funding -- about $1 billion -- could be marked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair levees throughout the United States, with $589.5 million set aside for the Mississippi River and Tributaries system. The Birds Point-New Madrid levee would benefit.

The floods of 2011, are estimated to have caused as much as $1 billion in damage from Cape Girardeau to Head of Passes in Louisiana. Beyond the damage, Anderson said dredging the tons upon tons of silt in harbors from Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf holds a significant cost.

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

New Madrid, MO

Wyatt, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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