Corps of Engineers says levee will be rebuilt to 55 feet

Friday, October 21, 2011
Water flows over the breached section of levee near New Madrid, Mo., after it was intentionally breached on Tuesday, May 3, 2011. On May 2, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh gave the order to activate the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway, covering over 130,000 acres of farmland to ease flooding upstream. (Kristin Eberts)

Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday the only thing stopping them from raising the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway levee an additional four feet was $2.7 million.

Later in the day, Gov. Jay Nixon announced he had committed $2 million in public infrastructure assistance funds to do just that, bringing the fix to 55 feet.

"Until the system is rebuilt, farmers, residents and businesses across a good portion of Mississippi County remain unprotected because of the corps' breaching of the levee system," Nixon said in a prepared statement.

Nixon spoke Wednesday with Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh about the funding. Walsh is president of the Mississippi River Commission and the man who decided to breach the levee in three spots May 2 to relieve floodwaters in communities in Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri.

"With this funding, the construction should proceed without interruption so that these Missourians are protected," Nixon said.

The corps had announced earlier Thursday that it stood ready to bolster its temporary fix of the levee system to a height equivalent to 55 feet on the Cairo, Ill., river gauge, a level expected to provide significantly more flood protection come spring than the originally planned 51 feet, though still lower than the pre-blast level of 62.5.

The corps has scheduled a news conference for 2:30 p.m. today at the center crevasse near Dorena, Mo., ferry to more fully explain the details. The corps will announce it will make repairs at the upper breach, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and the middle one near Seven Island Conservation Area.

The southernmost breach near Donaldson Point Conservation Area isn't included in the plan because it will already see some backwater flooding because of a 1,500-foot gap in the levee that existed before the corps intentionally breached it, said corps spokesman Jim Pogue.

Corps engineers have been studying whether the corps could go higher than the 51-foot temporary fix until funding was provided to restore the levee to its pre-blast level of 62.5 feet, Pogue said. The team recently finished its examination and said the corps could go to 55 feet without negatively affecting the rest of the Mississippi River and Tributaries flood-protection system, he said.

But the corps doesn't have the money to build any higher, he said. It has already spent $8.4 million and has committed a total of $15 million to shore up the levee to 51 feet by Nov. 30, a goal the corps is still on target to meet, Pogue said.

According to an update provided Wednesday, the corps has 91 percent of the upper crevasse completed, 48 percent of the middle and 96 percent of the lower. The middle breach was delayed until an endangered species of bird that was nesting in the area left.

"We pretty much have moved around the money within the corps to get to 51," Pogue said. "If Congress or whoever can appropriate the funds to make it happen, we're ready to go to 55."

And now they can.

Raising the levee to 55 feet will lower the risk to a 6 percent chance of overtopping in any given year, while 51 feet left a 16 percent risk of floodwaters coming over the levee, Pogue said.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson said she was confident the full amount of funding could be found. Emerson was the one who placed a call to Nixon about state funding, though questions remain about the corps' ability to accept state funding.

"We knew they could go up to 55 without having any negative impact on Hickman and Fulton County, Ky.," she said. "It's taken so long to finish up their assessment. But that's what we were hoping they were going to say. ... I was not comfortable with 51. But 55 gives you more security."

Mississippi County Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett said that the corps' systemwide approach misses the main point: Those who live and work within the floodway are the only ones along the Mississippi River left without protection.

Bennett pointed out that the floodgates at Morganza and Bonne Carre spillways are closed and that relief wells and slurry ditches are being installed at Cairo.

"Everybody has protection from the Mississippi River -- except us," Bennett said.

Still, Bennett said, 55 feet is much better than 51. The river has risen to higher than 55 feet only five times -- in 1937, 1950, 1973, 1993 and 2011. But it has risen above 51 feet seven times in the last 12 years.

"If it's not raised to 55 feet, that's a better than 50 percent chance we'll get flooded next year," he said. "We don't like those odds."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Dorena, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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