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Corps gets $3 million to repair Birds Point to 55 feet

Sunday, October 23, 2011

(Photo)
President of the Mississippi River Commission Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, second from left, speaks about the plans to rebuild the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway levee during a news conference at the levee's center crevasse near Dorena, Mo., on Friday, Oct. 21, 2011. With Walsh are, from left, Sam Angel, member of the Mississippi River Commission, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R.D. James, member of the Mississippi River Commission, Stephen Gambrell, executive director of the Mississippi River Commission, and Col. Vernie Reichling, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Memphis District commander.
(Kristin Eberts) [Order this photo]
DORENA, Mo. -- If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could order up 80 straight days of weather like Friday's -- 65 degrees and sunny -- then the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway levee would be rebuilt to 55 feet by the middle of February.

But corps officials said Friday at a news conference they know not many days like that remain, leaving Mississippi County residents with months of uncertainty before the threat of flooding returns next spring.

"We only have a few more days left like this left," said Memphis District Commander Col. Vernie Reichling. "So our focus is getting the job done to 51 feet and then our second priority is, when we get 80 good construction days, to get to 55."

The corps pledged to begin work without interruption once it completes the initial temporary fix to 51 feet, which it expects to happen by Nov. 30. Reichling promised that his crews would continue to work 10-to-12-hour days, seven days a week to get the work completed as quickly as possible.

The news conference, held at the spot of the second breach near Dorena, was attended by more than 30 people. Corps crews worked to fill scour holes in the background.

(Photo)
People explore the center crevasse of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway levee during a news conference detailing plans to rebuild the levee the near Dorena, Mo., on Friday, Oct. 21, 2011.
(Kristin Eberts)
Corps officials also announced that its headquarters had authorized another $3 million to pay for the work to reconstruct the levee along the floodway to a height equivalent to 55 feet on the Cairo, Ill., river gauge. Three holes were blasted in the levee in early May to relieve flood pressure upstream. The upper and middle crevasses will be raised to 55 feet, while the lower crevasse will remain at 51 feet, due to a gap in the levee that already existed and lets backwater flooding in.

Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday committed $2 million in state funds to pay for the project, but U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh shuffled money from flood-repair projects in other places to pay for this work.

"This system has been under tremendous pressure," said Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission. "There may be a risk over the next decade as we repair the entirety of the system. But we are going to use a systemwide approach and make this happen as rapidly as possible."

During a question-and-answer session following the announcements, a terse exchange was had between Walsh and Mississippi County Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett. Bennett was suggesting the corps would only spend money on Birds Point if money wasn't needed for system repairs at Cairo or Hickman County, Ky.

"So if Cairo doesn't need something or if Hickman County doesn't need something, then you'll get to us? I'm just wanting to make sure we're not being subjugated to those places," Bennett said.

Walsh told Bennett that his question included a lot of ifs.

"We here in Mississippi County are living with ifs and ifs," Bennett said. "We're just trying to put our lives back together."

Walsh countered that the corps has to consider the entire system. The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, the largest flood-control project in the world, is a system of levees, floodways, channels and basins that has to be looked at as a whole, Walsh said. It is expected to cost $1 billion to repair the damage done to the system from this year's flooding, he said, with $75 million already being allocated.

"So we have $75 million to make $1 billion in repairs," Walsh said. "But it will be a systemwide approach."

After initially opting to rebuild to 51 feet, engineers last week informed Walsh the system could safely handle a 55-foot reconstruction, which is still shy of the 61.5 feet before the breach. Walsh requested the $3 million and learned the money was there last week.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, also in attendance, said she was pleased to be able to get the levee to 55 feet.

Corps officials said that level of protection leaves about a 6 percent chance of a flood that would overtop the levee in any given year.

"It makes me feel better," Emerson said. "It's safer, and it's better for all of you."

Still, Emerson hopes the $3 million serves as the "first down payment" with more to follow so a total reconstruction won't take a decade. She suggested that maybe the $2 million Nixon came up with could still go to the levee rebuilding, though corps officials say it's questionable whether they can even accept state funding.

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Dorena, MO


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