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Flood of 2011 anniversary: Corps maintains Birds Point levee breach saved billions in damages

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

(Photo)
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh announces at a news conference Monday, May 2, 2011 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will activate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway starting at 9 p.m. Col. Vernie Reichling Jr., center, also spoke. At right is U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson.
(Fred Lynch)
Reservoirs were full, the rivers kept swelling and the rain kept coming. The Ohio River set a record of 61.1 feet on the Cairo, Ill., gauge. It was still climbing.

(Photo)
An explosion lights up the night sky as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blows an 11,000 foot hole in the Birds Point levee in Mississippi County, Mo. on Monday, May 2, 2011. Army Corps of Engineers' Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh gave the order to blow a two-mile hole into the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri, which will flood 130,000 acres of farmland in Missouri's Mississippi County but protect nearby Cairo, Ill.
(AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, David Carson)
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, had a decision to make on May 1, 2011.

Under the Flood Control Act of 1928, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had the authority to intentionally breach the Birds Point levee and relieve pressure from the rising waters. His decision to act on this authority May 2 flooded 130,000 acres of farmland -- home to about 50 families in Mississippi and New Madrid counties.

It's a decision, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that prevented more than $112 billion in damages throughout the Mississippi River and Tributaries system.

But the farmers, whose livelihood depends on the floodway, are still counting what Walsh's decision cost them. The Food and Agriculture Research Policy Institute estimates the crop losses alone at $85 million and a broader economic impact exceeding $156 million. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson contends the corps wasn't working off proper maps of the floodway and based its decision on incorrect hydrology.

A levee break in an unexpected area could have easily caused $1 billion in damage, said Robert Anderson, corps spokesman in Vicksburg, Miss.

"The entire system was at risk," Anderson said. "There were eminent failures. All along the system people were really at the point where the levees were about to be either overtopped or the pressure from the historic heights was just going to create a failure in an area that is not scheduled to fail."

An unplanned breach could have destroyed hundreds of homes, lives and cut off major transportation arteries, Anderson said.

The fact that the floodway plan had been in place for years didn't reduce the panic expressed during a town-hall meeting organized by Emerson on April 27 in East Prairie, Mo.

In the coming days, multiple times a day, Walsh and members of the Mississippi River Commission received updates on the capacity of Kentucky and Barkley lakes to hold back water, the condition of the levees, and the National Weather Service's latest forecasts.

Walsh waited as long as possible, longer than many of his colleagues thought he should have, to give the order to pump a slurry of explosives into pipes embedded in the Birds Point levee, according to a book the corps commissioned titled "Divine Providence -- History of the 2011 Flood" by Charles A. Camillo.

"Making this decision is not easy or hard," Walsh said. "It's simply grave -- because the decision leads to loss of property and livelihood, either in a floodway or in an area that was not designed to flood."

The operation, which cost about $2 million, was plagued with problems. The water was so high, just a foot or two below the top of the levee in places, that it made it difficult for crews to access. There was also lightning at the time. Then explosives ran short, forcing the corps to reduce the size of the first breach by 2,000 feet. When more explosives had to be obtained for the second breach site, these proved less effective, making a smaller hole in the levee than planned.

Engineers and planners are now working closely with the staff at the corps' Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg to incorporate the lessons learned from last year's operation of the floodway into future plans, said Jim Pogue, spokesman for the Memphis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"This includes but is certainly not limited to the blasting agent we used and possible alternative blasting agents, and pipeline configuration," he said. "Our goal is to ensure we take full advantage of everything we learned last year so that any future floodway operation is done in the most efficient manner possible while providing the highest level of protection to the people of the region."

The corps is also working on a comprehensive report on its flood fighting efforts last year due out this August, Anderson said.

When asked if the breach at Birds Point could change the way the river is managed in the future, Anderson said it very well could.

The corps is looking at raising the levee in some areas, examining why the sand boils were so severe, and if there is a need for another floodway between Memphis and Vicksburg, he said.

This is the first time in history all three floodways in the Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries system were activated in the same flood event.

The last time the Birds Point levee was breached was in 1937 and since that time the floodway plan has been subject to scrutiny.

In 1987, the late congressman Bill Emerson pushed for a resolution to direct the corps to determine feasible alternatives to operating the floodway. As a result, a 1990 study looked at purchasing the land within the floodway, constructing permanent auxiliary channels in the floodway to confine floodwaters, realigning and setting back the front line levee at five locations to provide a wider floodplain and a plan of natural overtopping of the front-line levee. In the end, the study concluded that while several alternatives were feasible from an engineering standpoint, they were not justified economically.

In 1997, when the Cairo gauge reached 56 feet, the Mississippi River commission considered operating the floodway and went as far as loading barges with materials and equipment.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Sen. Claire McCaskill and Sen Roy Blunt all say making sure the Birds Point levee is restored to its pre-flood height of 62.5 feet is a top priority. The corps has already spent $25 million on a temporary levee in place now at 55 feet, Anderson said. The entire Mississippi River and Tributaries system sustained more than $2 billion in damages from last year's flood.

Emerson has inserted language into the House Fiscal Year 2013 Energy and Water Appropriations bill requiring that these repairs be made by Dec. 31.

When it comes to future river management, Emerson said the local residents need to be part of the discussion.

"We have a lot of local stakeholders who know the lay of the land better than anybody else because they live and make their livelihood on it," she said. "The locals really need to be part of the solution."

Changing the way the activation of the floodway happens is not a matter of legislation, she said. It's the Mississippi River Commission's rule-making process that determined explosives should be used, not statute.

"It is very hard to get the corps of engineers to be what I consider forward thinking," Emerson said. "A better way of looking at it would be to have two or three alternatives to look at the precise moment when you have to make a decision," she said.

Emerson believes there are other ways to activate the floodway instead of using explosives.

Her preferred alternative would be to allow natural overtopping, which did occur in some places along the levee earlier in the day May 2. The corps didn't detonate the levee until later that night.

"I think they jumped the gun," she said.

mmiller@semissourian.com

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What Mrs. Emerson allowed to happen at Birds Point is a testament of her inability to stand up for the residents and business in South East Missouri. The Levee rebuild is a joke as it stands now and remains unfinished. The "work" that's been done thus far wouldn't hold back anything much less the Mighty Mississippi when the water rises.

This is only one of a myriad of reasons it is time to send Mrs. Emerson packing this election cycle. If you want someone that will stand up for you and your rights you do have a choice. Mrs. Emerson needs to be retired after 16 years. Enough is enough. Get out and vote in the Republican Primary on August 7th and send a real fighter and a conservative to Congress.

http://youtu.be/W8T3qDnFjdI

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5...

Get out and vote August 7th and we can begin to restore our district and our nation.

-- Posted by ddshea on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 8:18 AM

Emerson has been praised for her efforts repeatedly in response to this travesty. Ask the people that live and work in floodway. Keep trying Dirk.

http://dar.rustcom.net/story/1814539.htm...

When you're candidate can start to get letters like that written about him from local elected leaders he might at that point be credible.

-- Posted by workerdignity on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 8:23 AM

Let's keep posting links Dirk. I can do this all day. http://www.semissourian.com/story/184137...

-- Posted by workerdignity on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 8:24 AM

Ms. Emerson worked very hard for us on that levee. This article only shows her determination in fixing this problem and I support her efforts 100%.

-- Posted by TheScribe on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 8:27 AM

I have no doubts she was working hard. Allowing complete and utter man made devastation to occur in your district would provide a fair amount of motivation for a politician to take advantage of photo ops at every turn. The real issue is results.

I wonder who got the contracts to do the work? How much was spent for the "work" that's been done thus far?

I wonder why it remains as yet uncompleted?

There remains many questions surrounding this topic. It's no surprise that there may be those that support Mrs. Emerson in the area even after this was allowed to happen for fear that they wouldn't receive any help in attempting to clean up the mess that was created. If this was a true priority for her and her staff the levee would have been restored by now.

-- Posted by ddshea on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 8:41 AM

The comments made by ddshea about Congresswoman Emerson's efforts both to prevent the operation of the Bird's Point/New Madrid Floodway and to require the Corps of Engineers to restore the levees demonstrate just how ignorant of the facts the commentator is.

Neither Ms. Emerson, nor the Missouri Attorney General, who sought an injunction in the U.S. District Court, had the power to circumvent the authority of the Corps to put the floodway in operation--it is a matter of law, something that I would expect all of us to respect.

As for the restoration of the levees, Ms. Emerson secured the funding to restore the levees and has repeatedly demanded that the Corps do so in a timely manner. However, she is not the "Commander-in-Chief" and cannot order the Army to do anything that she would like. All of our best efforts are still dependent on what Generals decide, not vice versa.

I would be glad to discuss accurate facts, rather than accusations based on ignorance with anyone. I am very familiar with this subject.

-- Posted by Lynn N. Bock on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 9:51 AM

Dirk, keep beating this drum. Oh please, Oh please, Oh please.

-- Posted by workerdignity on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 10:23 AM

Mrs. Bock if you have information related to who was contracted to do the work I would like to check into it further.

-- Posted by ddshea on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 10:52 AM

I find it a disgrace that anyone would make a claim that a politician would allow this to happen to get photo ops. You oviously are not aware of how much Mrs. Emerson's cares about agriculture. I am a farmer and find this totally out of line.

-- Posted by Tom B. on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 10:59 AM

I too find it a disgrace. After serving 8 years in the Army I can assure you the Army is a highly political organization and yields to public opinion when it is warranted. It is my personal opinion that this should never have been allowed to occur but now that it has it should be restored.

And "Ulster" really? Bang the drum? This was a man made catastrophe that could and should have been avoided. Peoples' lives and property were devastated. I don't see this as an issue to gloat over as if there is something to be won here. It needs to be restored and restored before the waters rise again.

-- Posted by ddshea on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 11:32 AM

Mr. Shea,

If you were as smart as you think you are you would know that the levels for blowing the levees are in statues that could not be changed. I would implore you to speak to MR. Lynn Bock because he would be able to educate you about why this happened. The levees are being restored thanks to Mrs. Emerson, who made sure the money was available and that the work would go on.

-- Posted by Tom B. on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 12:51 PM

Mr. B, your sarcasm and Condescension over an issue that greatly affected our district are much appreciated. I'd hope that you attempt to treat others that are seeking information and have questions regarding this topic with a little bit of respect in the future if that's something you're capable of providing. If Mr. Lynn Bock, my apologies for confusing you're gender before, and I'm glad that you two are acquainted enough at least for Mr. B to clarify that point for me...If anyone has any knowledge as to what companies were awarded the contracts for the restoration I'd like that information. I've checked with the ACE and there are many postings for contracts to be bid on but nothing about who was awarded the contracts. As well if there is a list of monies allocated for the restoration project that are official I'd like to see that information too. I have found a lot of figures in different articles but would like to see some official numbers. If you are an expert on this project Mr. Bock maybe you could point me and others who are interested in the right direction.

-- Posted by ddshea on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 5:51 PM

Congresswoman Emerson Did a great job trying to stop the intentional blowing of the Birds-Point levey what is lacking is the wanted destruction of homes and property of the people who lived in the spillway (nobody cares) . The Corps or our government should be responsible for what they have done to us in Mississippi County. I lived in the spillway for 38yrs my whole life was in the spillway, now I live in Charleston .

-- Posted by D Renaud on Wed, Apr 25, 2012, at 9:30 PM

Had the levee been blown sooner like it was supposed to many people on the Illinois side would not have lost their homes and farmland, myself included. This was a terrible situation all the way around. Instead of blaming politicians because they didn't stop it, or blaming the Illinois politicians for not fighting harder for their residents to get it to happen sooner, why don't you focus your energy on trying to figure out possible solutions that would benefit both sides? The counties involved on both sides of the river rely on each other for one thing or another, so why not get together to come up a solution if this should ever occur again. I'm glad they blew the levee because it saved many I know from going thru what I, and the people living in the floodway, went thru. I'm sorry for everyone that lost their homes because i know exactly how it feels.

-- Posted by JUST THINK ABOUT IT on Thu, Apr 26, 2012, at 12:40 PM

For those who wish to get the latest about the Birds Point fiasco, get in touch with me. eldonwright63966@gmail.com

-- Posted by born right on Mon, May 14, 2012, at 2:14 PM


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