(Laura Simon) [Order this photo]
"This is the first critical step in the process of returning the front-line levee to its preflood level of protection," said Col. Vernie Reichling, the corps' Memphis district commander, in a news release. "It will set the stage for contract work crews to begin widening and raising the levee to 55 feet."
When floodwaters at Cairo, Ill., last May reached 61 feet and were still rising, the corps breached the levee, following an emergency plan created after the flood of 1927. About 130,000 acres of floodway in Mississippi and New Madrid counties were submerged in an effort to protect areas determined to be at greater risk in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.
As part of rebuilding, collapsible wire mesh containers with heavy fabric liner, called HESCO bastions, were used to bring the levee up to 55 feet as an interim measure when reconstruction was discontinued in the winter. In consultation with the National Weather Service, the corps has determined that river levels and flood risk are low enough that it is safe to remove the barriers, reducing the levee height to 51 feet to make way for contractors to finish the permanent structure.
Jim Pogue, spokesman for the corps' Memphis district, said the levee should be brought up to 55 feet by "sometime this fall."
Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson said she was informed Wednesday of the plan to remove barriers. She said Gen. John Peabody of the corps told her there is about a 4 percent chance of flooding until the permanent 55-foot structure is completed. In the meantime, the emergency bastions will be close by should there be any unexpected rise in waters, she 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.
Before being breached last spring, the levee measured 62.5 feet. The corps is studying how to safely bring it back to its full height by the end of the year. Pogue said engineers are constantly evaluating the process all along the river system to make sure that no single area is put at an unacceptable risk. The higher the levee is built, he said, the more pressure is placed on the system, including confluence areas such as the floodway, Cairo and Fulton County, Ky.
Engineering hasn't been the only challenge. Although fully funded now, construction was delayed because funding trickled in incrementally, which slowed getting contracts in place, Pogue said.
But Emerson said the corps has had the resources it needed to complete each stage on time.
"We have had the funding under control from the outset," Emerson said.
A House of Representatives appropriations bill that Emerson supported was drafted last June and the funding it requested was rolled into the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act signed by President Barack Obama just before Christmas. The law allocated $802 million to the Mississippi Valley Division, part of which became available to rebuilding efforts in addition to the corps' regular annual budget.
Emerson and Pogue both said they hope the situation that led to the levee breach doesn't happen again and that lessons learned last spring should inform future decision-makers.
Pogue said the corps is looking at alternative blasting agents and at whether there is a way to relieve floodwaters without explosives. He also said that the corps wants to have a solid plan in place for both breaching and rebuilding the levee, including funding, to streamline the process.
"God forbid, if we ever have to do it again, it will be done in the best possible way," Pogue said.
Emerson would also like to explore alternatives, such as allowing the levee to overtop naturally or creating emergency channels and she hopes local stakeholders are involved in the process.
"There is nothing in the law that says they have to blow it up," Emerson said.
Two additional detonation sites continue to be under construction. The center crevasse near Seven Island Conservation Area was brought to 55 feet in December and the lower crevasse near Donaldson Point Conservation Area was restored to 51 feet in October. All three are planned for completion by winter, according to corps project updates.