"We're not forecasting a repeat of recent historic and prolonged flooding in the central and northern U.S., and that is a relief," said Laura Furgione, deputy director of NOAA's National Weather Service, in a news release Thursday.
Maj. Jon Korneliussen, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project coordinator working on the restoration of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, said Friday he doesn't think that the flood threat is eliminated, but the situation for local residents in flood-prone areas looks better than it did last year.
Last February, moderate to major flooding was being predicted for the north-central United States. In May, record-breaking flooding reached 61.52 feet on the Ohio River gauge at Cairo, Ill., and led the Corps of Engineers to breach the Birds Point-New Madrid levee to spare populated areas along the Mississippi River. The levee breach submerged 130,000 acres of farmland, mostly in Mississippi County, Mo.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Emergency Watershed Protection Program is working to improve farmland drainage ahead of spring rainfall to alleviate flood risks caused by failed drainage systems. Waters from the breach filled 140 miles of drainage ditches with up to eight feet of debris, and excavators have been at work for weeks cleaning out sediment.
The Corps of Engineers issued an update on the rebuilding of the levee Friday saying the first phase has been completed. The next phase has been funded and plans are under development, with a completion scheduled for this winter.
The levee has been raised to 55 feet and constructed of 51 feet of clay. Four feet of it is made of a collapsible wire mesh container lined with heavy-duty fabric filled with sand.
"We are confident of the level of protection at 55 feet," Korneliussen said. He said last year's levels exceeded the 100-year flood mark and that 55 feet is about a 20 to 25 year recurrence level.
"Odds are, we won't see waters that high," Korneliussen said, "But it is always a possibility."
The flood gauge at Cairo has only risen above 55 feet seven times since 1844 -- in 1927, 1950, 1973, 1975, 1995, 1997 and 2011.
The NOAA release said that water levels in rivers and streams are normal to below normal for most of the country and that there is less snowpack than in previous years, which reduces the likelihood of flooding from snow melt. The Ohio River basin along portions of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky, along with parts of Louisiana and Mississippi are the only areas with an above-average risk of flooding, due to above-average water levels and soil moisture.
However, the release notes that "heavy spring rainfall can lead to flooding at any time, even in areas where overall risk is considered at or even below normal."
"This is all based on the forecast at this time," Korneliussen said. "Things could change."