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Corps to hire private firms to complete Birds Point levee restoration

Sunday, March 25, 2012

(Photo)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is seen working on the Birds Point levee in November last year.
(Laura Simon) [Order this photo]
With funding firmly in place, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is targeting mid-June to continue its efforts to restore the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway levee to what it was before three holes that totaled almost four miles long were blasted in it last May.

But this time the government officials are bringing in the private sector to finish the job.

In the next two weeks, the corps will be advertising for "companies capable of doing large earthworks projects," to create a pool of three qualified firms that can bid on individual projects that, when completed by year's end, will result in a levee that provides flood protection to a level of 62.5 feet on the Ohio River gage at Cairo, Ill.

"There may be small pieces of work for us to do that we're capable of doing in-house before they get started," said project engineer Maj. Jon Korneliussen. "But our intent is to get the bulk of the work out to the private sector."

Restoring the floodway will be a major point of discussion Monday, when the Mississippi River Commission conducts its annual high-water inspection trip in Tiptonville, Tenn. The meeting will be held aboard the Motor Vessel Mississippi and is open to the public.

Overall, the corps' Memphis District will explain how it intends to spend $300 million it has been awarded by Congress to make repairs along the river that was caused by record-setting flooding that took place last spring. About $22 million of that will be spent near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, which includes damage to Cairo, Fulton County, Ky., and in the floodway, said corps spokesman Jim Pogue.

The "big ticket" items include repairing the floodway and restoring flood-fighting controls in place south of Tiptonville, where $27 million will be spent to ensure that the river doesn't carve a new course. Pogue said that would be "catastrophic" considering that the millions the corps has already spent to stabilize the river would be lost. Another $24.5 million will be spent at the Memphis Harbor, where the river also tried to change direction.

The work looks to be intensive, Pogue said.

"I think it's one of the biggest things we've done in decades," Pogue said.

The agenda for the meeting Monday includes a summary report by Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the corps Mississippi Valley Division and president of the commission. Peabody last year replaced Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, who stood at the center of the controversy as the man who ultimately ordered the levee breached. Walsh has since been promoted to deputy commander for civil works and emergency operations.

The decision decimated 130,000 acres of farms and homes in Mississippi and New Madrid counties after the water was unleashed. Walsh insisted he was following protocol and defended the decision as necessary to alleviate flooding elsewhere along the river that would have created a greater risk to human safety.

Pogue promised the floodway restoration will be a "key component" of the presentation.

The corps halted its floodway repairs in December after spending $20 million to that point to shore up the levee to a level of 55 feet of flood protection at each of the blasting spots. To get to 55 feet at the northernmost spot at Birds Point, the corps had to hurriedly erect a $550,000 temporary flood barrier known as a HESCO barrier -- large, collapsible wire mesh container with heavy-duty fabric liners filled with sand.

After the pool of companies is selected, according to Korneliussen, they will bid basically to work on each crevasse, starting at getting the northernmost breach at Birds Point repaired to 55 feet of protection. Then, later in the summer, he said, work can begin on the other two breaches to get them restored to 62.5 feet. Construction will consist of moving dirt, culvert installation, installing the pipe and access wells.

Private firms, he said, are being brought in because of the large number of projects the corps has to deal with here and in other spots,

Korneliussen said.

The goal is to have all of the work completed by the end of the calendar year, a target that Korneliussen called "aggressive, but doable," if weather cooperates.

Mississippi County Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett said farmers and others who work in the floodway are hopeful, but skeptical.

"I think that all sounds good, what they're saying," Bennett said. "But we have empirical data that says to be skeptical. It's not anecdotal after what happened last year. It's empirical."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Wyatt, MO

Tiptonville, TN

Cairo, IL


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