Corps wraps up work at Birds Point for winter

Friday, December 16, 2011
Cody Dicks with the Missouri Department of Conservation walks toward the intentional breach in the Birds Point levee in Mississippi County on Thursday morning while surveying the area for swamp rabbits. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a $550,000 HESCO barrier that has been built to 55 feet on the Cairo, Ill., gauge and serves as temporary flood protection. (Laura Simon)

CHARLESTON, Mo. -- For more than seven months, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked to undo some of the damage it caused in May when three holes were blasted in the Birds Point-New Madrid levee.

With work coming to a halt this week until warmer weather returns next year, corps officials Thursday met with farmers and local officials to discuss what looks to be a winter of uncertainty.

"What we have for this winter season is what we said we would deliver -- 55 feet on the Cairo gauge level of protection," said Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley Division.

Still, the corps only reached 55 feet of protection by hurriedly erecting a $550,000 temporary flood barrier at the upper crevasse near Birds Point. The barrier, known as a HESCO barrier, is a large, collapsible wire mesh container with heavy-duty fabric liners filled with sand.

The other breaches to the south had previously been finished to 55 feet, but none has been restored to the original preblast level of 62.5 feet.

"That's all they could do with what they had to work with," said Milas Wallace, who farms 1,600 acres of soybean, wheat and corn in the 130,000-acre floodway near Dorena, Mo.

Wallace, who is rebuilding a home that was flattened by floodwater, said he was comfortable with 55 feet of protection. But the HESCO barriers make him nervous.

"I'm not real comfortable with those barriers," Wallace said. "I've never seen them and I don't know how they work, so I'm not all that comfortable with it."

But corps officials said the barriers, conceived in the 1980s for the military to protect soldiers from bullets and shrapnel, are reliable.

Peabody and other corps officials spoke to a crowd of about 50 for three hours following a luncheon held at the Charleston Country Club. Peabody recently replaced Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, the man who ordered the activation of the floodway in May to alleviate flooding in communities in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.

Peabody was on hand during the floodway activation in the duties of his former post as the commander of the corps' Great Lakes and Ohio River Division in Cincinnati. He worked alongside Walsh, holding back water upstream in Kentucky and Barkley lakes.

"But that last rain event, just before the floodway was activated, that broke our backs," Peabody said.

Peabody acknowledged that there "wasn't much of a plan" to repair the levees after they were breached. That was the case, he said, because most people considered the likelihood of such a floodway activation "unimaginable."

Still, the corps has completed an intensive analysis and review of the damage last spring's flood did to the massive Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, with estimates in excess of $2 billion, Peabody said.

The corps has already reallocated $120 million from other projects to repair damages at 146 Mississippi River Valley projects and is working on another $200 million in the near future, he said.

But he stressed that funding is limited and there is no money in the corps' budget right now to restore Birds Point to its preblast level of 62.5 feet. The corps has already spent $16.5 million to rebuild it to this point.

Working on funding

But Peabody said U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican, had assured him she was working on getting the funding to complete the project.

Later Thursday, Emerson responded in a statement that the corps knows she is a "willing and eager partner" in the effort to fund the restoration. She also expressed confidence that Congress will provide ample resources to complete the work.

"But delays have forced us to the point we're at today, with a temporary levee which is under threat from December river levels," she said. "If we are in a similar situation in April and May of next year, there will be some serious consequences."

In even stronger language, Emerson said, "I won't tolerate delays that imperil the local economies of two entire communities, and a timeline which won't allow us to put more dirt on the levee until late summer is completely unacceptable."

Corps crews aren't expected to begin working again until late spring or early summer, said the corps project manager Dennis Abernathy. When work resumes, he said, it would take another 65 to 70 days to get the northern breach at Birds Point to 55 feet.

Meanwhile, he said, the corps will prepare plans and specifications over the winter for restoring the levees to 62.5 feet, should funding come through.

During the three-hour discussion, Peabody said the corps is willing to entertain methods other than using explosives. Peabody said he understands that is a major concern of farmers who worry about rebuilding everything only to have the corps activate the floodway again.

"I'm all for building a better mousetrap," Peabody said. "But we have to figure out what is the alternative way to execute the floodway that would be most efficient, most effective and most reliable -- and possibly reduce damages to y'all's property."

The corps has discussed using gates, though officials have said that is unlikely. More likely, corps spokesman Jim Pogue said, is the development of a process that would allow natural overtopping of the levees.

Farmers at the meeting said almost anything would be better than what happened last spring.

"Putting dynamite in this levee, that's not an alternative," said Ed Marshall of Charleston, who farms 8,000 acres in the floodway. "I don't know if we have to go to Congress, the corps, whomever we have to, but we've got to come up with a different plan."


Pertinent address:

Mississippi County, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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