A year later, Gen. Walsh reflects on 'grave' decision to activate floodway

Friday, May 4, 2012
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh speaks to citizens and the media Saturday, April 30, 2011 about the large sand boil that has appeared in Cairo, Ill. (Laura Simon)

It was his call.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh became a familiar figure in the days leading up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' activation of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

The soggy masses awaited word daily from the silver-haired two-star general who held the fate of communities in a half-dozen states in his hands. As commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley Division, Walsh was responsible for a $7.5 billion civil works program and played a vital role in managing its water resources program in the Mississippi River Valley.

In Southeast Missouri, as the rains descended during that monumental flood of 2011, people had only one question on their lips. Will he do it?

When the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway was activated starting on May 2, 2011, it was on Walsh's command. It was a decision he says today he did not make lightly. He knew the toll. Knew that it was going to wash away 130,000 acres on which sat people's homes, farms and livelihoods.

He knew the risks. But, in the end, he said Thursday, it was a decision that had to be made.

A year later, Walsh serves in Washington, D.C., as the deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations, where he oversees the corps' civil works and emergency operations for the nation. On Thursday, Walsh agreed to a telephone interview in which he talked freely about what happened and what he has realized with the benefit of hindsight.

The following is a Q-and-A from the 20-minute telephone conversation with the Southeast Missourian. Answers have only been edited for space considerations.

Q: Where does the decision to activate the floodway rank in your professional career?

A: It's probably in the top 10 percent of challenging decisions. ... It was neither easy or hard. It was a grave decision in that if I didn't make this decision to operate the levees, I'm fairly well convinced [the system] would have broken somewhere else. And I did make the decision, but I recognized ... that 130,000 acres were going to go underwater and a lot of people's lives were going to be impacted. So it was a grave decision.

Q: A year later, do you still feel like it was the right call?

A: There's no doubt. There was no other way to address the emergency. Once the weather forecast went from 61.2, 61.3 to 63 [on the Cairo, Ill., gauge], there was no way we were going to hold back another two-and-a-half-foot of water.

Q: Do you feel like you had much of a choice?

A: I thought I had a choice up until the forecast changed. We were right at the point, 61.2, [that] if we didn't have that last bit of localized rain that fell right over the system, I don't know what the answer would have been in regards to making that decision. I was right on the cusp of whether to operate or not. After that rainstorm that night, that was the game changer.

Q: Was it a decision you agonized over?

A: One of the reasons I moved the Motor Vessel Mississippi up into that area [was] so that I could be on the ground and see the impacts to the levees and the floodwalls. So I spent two or three days prior to operating that just looking at the seepages over at Hickman, Ky. I saw what was happening at the Cairo floodwalls, saw the biggest sand boil that any of us have ever seen. So I kind of had a feel for how the systems were holding up and recognizing we were on the cusp. I don't know if agonizing is the right word -- more of an engineering review and analysis. Again, after that rainfall hit, there was no other choice.

Q: In some media coverage, people presented it as a decision of Cairo versus the floodway, people versus land. That take isn't accurate, is it?

A: No, and frankly that made me angry ... that people made it Cairo versus 130,000 acres. That was misinformation. The system was designed back in the 1920s as a system. That was the confluence area. What we were looking for was maintaining the integrity of the entire system and not saving Cairo or Hickman or New Madrid. ... Those people who were saying it's saving Cairo to flood this area either didn't understand or were giving out misinformation.

Q: How hectic was the pace? Describe for me those long days leading up to the decision.

A: It was not only at New Madrid, Cairo area and the confluence area. We were also having challenges down at the mouth of the Mississippi. We had to open up the Bonne Carre spillway. We also had some serious challenges, you'll remember, down in Memphis and Greenville. What was good, I had the motor vessel there as my headquarters in the New Madrid area and I had a plane available to me so I was able to fly down and check things out at Vicksburg and Baton Rouge and New Orleans. There were some long days, but I've had longer and more challenging ones.

Q: You said this decision was only in the top 10 percent of challenging decisions. What else compares?

A: Most of them had to do with combat missions. [<I>Editor[']s note: General Walsh came to the Mississippi Valley Division from Baghdad, where he was the commander for the corps' Gulf Region Division.] I was Gen. [David] Petraeus' and before that Gen. [George] Casey's engineering commander in Iraq. So the decisions on where to put and protect oil lines -- where we were going to build infrastructure in particular areas, in some cases where the insurgents and where al-Qaida was. Making the decision to defend those areas, there was some life-and-death decisions that were made on how we put together infrastructure and how we defend them.

Q: Do you believe your decisions and actions of the corps saved lives?

A: Yes. I think it did. Similar flows back in '27 caused 500 fatalities. This was in '27 when our nation did not have the population it does now. If we didn't operate the system as designed, it would have been a deadly flood as opposed to a catastrophic flood.

Q: Did you even for a second consider waiting another day or two to activate?

A: We were done in regards of waiting on time. If anything, I might have made the decision a little bit earlier. So certainly we would not have waited any longer.

Q: How much did the fact that people were living and working in the floodway weigh into your decision?

A: It was certainly part of the decision that made it grave. I'm flooding people's houses ... their farms and outstructures. I knew I was affecting their livelihoods as farmers and the structures they had in place. It certainly played into my thoughts.

Q: Do you have any regrets? In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

A: We're still writing up lessons learned and how we can do things better. I know Gen. [John] Peabody is still looking at slurry mix and can we come up with some other methods to explosively operate the system? I would also consider whether there is a nonexplosive method of operating the system like we do down at the Bonne Carre and Morganza.

Q: Anything else you'd want to say to the people of Southeast Missouri?

A: I think that those that I know have come to respect me and the many folks that I know there are good honest hardworking Americans and I'm proud of them. And they know that.

smoyers@semissourian.com

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