Book details decision to breach Birds Point levee

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

ST. LOUIS -- Charles A. Camillo found himself a part of history in 2011 as the Mississippi River crept higher and higher, lapping at the top of the levees.

As the historian for the Mississippi River Commission and the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, there was no where else he wanted to be.

Now Camillo has written the official history of the flood. "Divine Providence: The 2011 Flood in the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project" is a result of his eyewitness account, interviews with those in charge and mountains of memos generated through the weeks of battling floodwaters.

Twenty-five hundred copies of the book were printed. Copies are free and available by calling the Public Affairs office in Vicksburg, Miss., at 601-634-7783 and providing a mailing address. Books will be mailed while supplies last. Also the book is available as a download in a PDF from the Mississippi River Commission's website and will soon be available for e-readers with Nook and Kindle versions.

"I happened to be there as the flood was unfolding," said Camillo, who maintains offices in St. Louis and Vicksburg, Miss. He was dispatched to Sikeston, Mo. where, he said, he wasn't quite sure what his role was going to be, so he started keeping notes.

The more he watched, he said, it became evident he was in the middle of a historic event. And with a front-row seat.

"I was in the room when a lot those decisions were made," Camillo said. "It was neat to watch the decisions unfold."

The biggest decision, covered in the first two of the book's five chapters, involved the activation of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, according to the author.

"It had been so long since it had been operated and the corps and the Mississippi River Commission had done so much to increase the level of protection on that front line levee over the years ... I think most people knew [breaching the levee] was a possibility but most people thought they would never see it in their lifetimes," said Camillo, who first worked with the commission covering the flood of 1993.

"It just seem surreal. As a historian, we know better than to say something isn't going to happen," he said. "Then all of sudden we have this massive flood and it becomes a reality that we will have to use that tool to control the flood."

The book includes interviews with the corps leaders -- Col. Vernie Reichling, who served as the corps' liaison on the ground, Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, who was reporting on the state of the Ohio River, and Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, who led the Mississippi River Commission.

It details the creation of the levee system as well as the legal battle that ensued as it became apparent the corps could breach the levee.

Camillo said the decision to breach the levee was much more difficult than people imagined. As he wrote the book he said he realized the conflicting information Walsh was receiving from the various people involved.

As Walsh walked the levees, he heard reports from those whose land and livelihoods were at stake, the engineers and the weather forecasters. They voiced their worries and offered their advice such as the cautions from the man who was involved in developing the 1985 floodway plan who told Walsh not to load the pipes with the explosives unless he was 100 percent sure he was going to operate the floodway.

Camillo said when he heard those details, he finally understood the long wait until 4 a.m. for the explosions to light up the sky, breaching the levee.

The book follows the Mississippi River floodwaters down the river. Chapter three looks at historical context of Mississippi River tributaries from Arkansas to Vicksburg while chapter four centers on the flood fight flood fight along the Mississippi Delta from Greenville to Vicksburg. The last chapter is about the engineering control on the Mississippi River as relates to the West Atchafalaya floodway and the decision to activate the Morganza and Bonnet Carre floodways.

Camillo said what he hoped to create with the book is to bring the readers into the decision making process and give them an idea of what was taking place. Also because so many of the documents were electronically generated, he was concerned these sources could disappear.

"By doing the interviews that I did along with my own personal notes I've created one large primary source on the subject," he said. "I view this as a starting point. I hope an enterprising historian will come through someday and do something bigger and greater for this story."

R.D. James, a member of the Mississippi River Commission, who spent some 26 days in the field watching the flood fight along with Camillo, has high praise for the book.

"I think he touched very well on the trauma experienced by not only the people being impacted by the flood but also the people involved in trying to control it -- the generals, the colonels and their staffs, the people on the ground," James said.

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