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Corps: Birds Point 'No. 1 priority' with new funds
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is getting $800 million in federal disaster relief funds to make repairs along the flood-ravaged Mississippi River, corps officials announced Thursday.
And the corps called fixing the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway the top priority with those dollars.
"It's No. 1 on the list," corps spokesman Bob Anderson said.
Still, the corps has yet to say exactly how much it will spend on which projects and that will happen in the weeks to come, Anderson said.
The funding is part of an overall $1.7 billion included in the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act signed by President Barack Obama two days before Christmas. The Mississippi Valley Division will receive $802 million to repair damages incurred during what the corps calls the Great Flood of 2011, the largest recorded flood in the river's history.
The corps in May activated the floodway, which inundated 130,000 acres in Mississippi and New Madrid counties. So far $25 million has been spent to get the levees rebuilt to 55 feet of protection on the Cairo, Ill., river gauge at the three spots detonated by the corps. Rebuilding work stopped earlier this month for the winter.
But the corps estimates it will take another $20 million to rebuild the earthen levees to the pre-blast level of 62.5 feet -- money the corps said all summer it did not have in its budget to do.
Corps officials expressed gratitude for the money Thursday.
"Obviously, we're happy to get it," Maj. Jon Korneliussen said. "But we don't have the specific projects identified yet. We're prioritizing and we'll move forward to get that scheduled as soon as we can."
The Mississippi Valley Division has 146 projects in need of money, including work to stop seepage and remove a sand boil at Cairo, as well as other projects in Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee.
"We have to get those projects up to snuff as well," Anderson said.
But the plan, he said, calls for making repairs at Cairo and at Birds Point simultaneously. Birds Point cannot be fixed first, because that would add pressure to the flood-protection system at Cairo, Anderson said.
"So they sort of have to be done at the same time," he said.
Also factoring into their decision, he said, is that corps engineers are looking at alternatives to blowing holes in the levees to "activate" the floodway, including allowing the natural overtopping of the levees.
Damage assessments to levees and operating projects from the 2011 flood are still underway, but engineers estimate that repair costs for damages in the Mississippi Valley region alone are approaching $1 billion.
Missouri's congressional delegation supported the appropriation, including U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Cape Girardeau and Sens. Kit Bond and Claire McCaskill.
Emerson said Thursday she has worked hard to assure that funding will not be an issue for the repairs still needed at Birds Point.
"In my mind, and for hundreds of Missourians, the situation there is still an emergency which threatens livelihoods and private property," Emerson said. "The corps knows what must be done, and the funding in this measure should allow them to pursue the most aggressive timeline possible in the restoration of preflood protections."
Mississippi County Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett said he has some real concerns about the corps being able to get the levees to 62.5 feet with $20 million.
But he was pleased with the announcement of the additional money.
"Now they can't run around saying they're not funded yet," Bennett said.
The county's "unified position," he said, is for the corps to allow overtopping instead of using explosives. That would allow the river water to enter the floodway at a slower pace and would reduce the scouring the county saw in May.
"We're in favor of a solution that doesn't involve blowing the heck out of the levees, which then blows the heck out of everything," Bennett said.
The flood gauge at Cairo has only risen above 55 feet seven times since 1844 -- in 1927, 1950, 1973, 1975, 1995, 1997 and 2011.