Corps problem: Many demand Southeast Missouri levees rebuilt to 62 feet at public hearing

Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Demonstrators hold signs outside the MV Mississippi Monday, Aug. 15, 2011 at New Madrid, Mo. (Fred Lynch)

NEW MADRID, Mo. -- From the signs being held along the shore to the words being said aboard the ship, the message Monday was resounding: Rebuild the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

Not to 51 feet, as proposed, but to 62 feet -- the level in place before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted three holes in the levee in May as part of its plan to fight record-setting floodwaters.

"Fifty-one feet changes everything dramatically," said Furg Hunter, a supervisor for the St. John's Levee and Drainage District. "Our farmers are looking at a 50-50 chance of losing everything. Again."

Other comments weren't so kind. At the Mississippi River Commission's annual low-water inspection trip, some of the speakers at a public meeting offered biting criticisms, accusing corps officials of a "shoddy performance," having a "policy of inaction" and of "playing politics."

Twenty-six speakers took turns at a podium in a packed room of about 200 in the Motor Vessel Mississippi, the corps' Memphis District diesel-powered boat that hauled the explosives to Birds Point in May to activate the floodway. The commission gathered public input at the meeting, which topped the five-hour mark.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson speaks to members of the Mississippi River Commission aboard the MV Mississippi Monday, Aug. 15, 2011 at New Madrid, Mo. (Fred Lynch)

Many of the comments were directed at Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the commission and commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley Division. Walsh gave the order to activate the floodway this spring.

"Sir, today, I am saddened, disappointed and damn mad about what you have done to our county," East Prairie Mayor Kevin Mainord told Walsh. "Sir, just because you have the authority to blow up the Birds Point levee, it did not make it the right thing to do."

The floodway is in Mississippi County and New Madrid County, and Mainord told the commission that the lives of people in those counties have been changed forever. The activation, which the corps said would relieve pressures in other parts of the Mississippi River and tributaries system, destroyed about 100 homes and wreaked havoc on 130,000 acres of prime Missouri farmland.

"Where, sir, is your sense of urgency in this matter?" asked Lester Goodin, a fifth-generation floodway farmer and levee district member. "Why do you seem to shirk your responsibility?"

Some challenged Walsh's continued statement that the plan to activate the floodway worked. An engineer with one of the levee districts questioned how much water reduction Cairo, Ill., saw after the floodway was breached in three spots.

Walsh asked the engineer if he had spoken with engineers in Hickman, Ky., Cape Girardeau or other places that did have water reductions after the levee was breached.

"They say it worked," Walsh said.

Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, defended Walsh, saying that the floodway levees would have overtopped regardless of Walsh's decision.

"The rain just overwhelmed us," Peabody said. "The floodway would have been flooded either way -- either deliberately or naturally."

While some talked about the wisdom of blowing the levee in the first place, more spoke about the corps decision to rebuild the floodway to 51 feet on the Cairo gauge, which is well below where it stood before the breach.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson was among those who implored the corps to rebuild the levee to its original height of 62 feet.

"While a plan was quickly implemented to detonate the levee, the plan -- if there was one -- to restore flood protection proceeded at a snail's pace," the Cape Girardeau Republican said.

Emerson said she understands there have been difficulties but that she could not understand "even a moment's delay in setting right the lives which have been overturned."

Emerson said she attended the meeting Monday in large part to urge the corps to rebuild the levee to its preblast height as soon as possible.

"The people of this region ask for nothing more than the opportunity to work their land," Emerson said.

Some farmers said that without meaningful flood protection, insurance is nearly impossible to get, and others worried about losing more crops should the river rise again. Some noted that the Mississippi River rose above 51 feet at the Cairo gauge 12 times in the last 20 years.

The corps, for its part, said that there is no money to fully rebuild the levees just yet. Col. Vernie Reichling, commander of the Memphis District, said an additional $20 million is needed to completely rebuild the levees. The corps is spending $15 million to get to the 51-foot level and if the money isn't appropriated, they won't be able to rebuild the levees to 62 feet.

The news is grim on that front, as well: The corps will likely again see budget cuts next year. For fiscal year 2012, the Memphis District is looking at a $56 million budget, which is down from the previous year's $87 million.

Also holding things up is an environmental assessment, although that is supposed to be wrapped up by Sept. 12. Least terns continue to nest in the vicinity of the center crevasse and the endangered birds are expected to finish nesting and depart by early September. No rebuilding work has started at the center breach, Reichling said.

About 11 percent of the upper crevasse and 15 percent of the lower crevasse has been completed, he said. The corps is still working with a goal of having the floodway rebuilt to 51 feet by Nov. 30.

Before the meeting, about 15 demonstrators stood along the riverfront holding up signs that said things like "Rebuild our levees so we can rebuild our lives."

"Fifty-one feet doesn't protect anybody," said Wanda Wallace, whose floodway farm saw significant damage. "They're risking our livelihood. This was not a natural disaster. This was a man-made disaster."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

New Madrid, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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