Corps working round-the-clock to rebuild Birds Point levee ahead of bad weather

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

More than six months after the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway levee was intentionally breached, the threat of rain has again become the enemy of Mississippi County farmers desperate to have crop-saving flood protection.

With Monday's storms and a chance of precipitation predicted for seven of the next nine days, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working around the clock to repair the three places it blew with explosives in May.

"We're trying to make the most of the good dry days while we have them," said project engineer Maj. Jon Korneliussen. "That's why we're doing night operations. We know as we get deeper into November and December, the good construction days are going to disappear."

Still, enough wet days in a row would knock the corps off its Nov. 30 deadline to get the levee repaired to a protection level of 51 feet on the Cairo, Ill., flood gauge, Korneliussen said.

That would push back work to get the levee repaired to 55 feet, for which the corps announced last month it had received $3 million in additional funds, he said.

"If it rains for a week straight, there's not a whole lot we can do about that," Korneliussen said.

The only deadline the corps has in place to get to 55 feet, he said, is by the spring's rainy season. If the rain were to hold off, the corps could have the entire levee repaired to 55 feet by the middle of December, he said.

But if the weather turns bad it could cause the earthwork to stop until sometime in February, he said.

"We're trying to avoid that situation, obviously," Korneliussen said. "I think our chances are fair to get to 55 feet with a permanent clay structure. But I don't know if that means we'll finish that by the middle of December or the second week of February."

Even if the rain interrupts the work until February, the corps has a plan in place to erect temporary flood-protection measures to 55 feet.

"But obviously it's our preference to get the dirt in place there so they can have some permanent protection," Korneliussen said.

The corps' Memphis District began working 24-hour operations at the center crevasse Nov. 4, mostly using 10-man crews to load off-road dump trucks with clay.

According to the Nov. 7 project report, the upper crevasse at Birds Point is 96 percent completed, to the 51-foot level, while the lower breach near Donaldson Point Conservation Area is 98 percent done. The center crevasse, near Seven Island Conservation Area, is 57 percent completed, the report said.

The corps has already spent more than $11 million on the levee repair so far.

Mississippi County Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett said few of his constituents are optimistic that the 55-foot level of protection will happen this year.

"It's eventually going to rain, the ground's going to freeze up and it will put a stop to the work," he said.

As the floodway farmers prepare to start planting winter wheat, the threat of rain has the county residents on pins and needles, Bennett said.

"If they were to lose this crop, it would be the second crop they've lost," Bennett said. "That won't work out well for a lot of people."


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