St. Louis — With the prospect of another season of spring flooding fast approaching, the Army Corps of Engineers insists the earthen flood levees outmatched by the Mississippi River last summer are rebuilt and ready. Not everyone’s so sure.
It was nearly nine months ago that floodwaters neared and, in some cases, obliterated record levels reached in the Great Flood of 1993, something many Midwesterners figured they’d never see again. The Mississippi and its tributaries pummeled levees protecting towns and farmland from Iowa south through St. Louis. Despite feverish sandbagging, dozens of the earthen structures were breached or overtopped.
‘Certain level of confidence’
Corps officials say holes in the levees are fixed, in many cases with dirt hauled in and tightly packed down in layers, then sodded or seeded so grass can blunt any erosion.
All told, the corps has spent about $64 million so far to fix breaches in about 70 levees in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.
“It should give them (those protected by levees) a certain level of confidence,” says Alan Dooley, a spokesman for the corps’ St. Louis district.
But Dooley and others with the corps say much mechanical work remains, from fixing pump houses to replacing drains. In areas where those upgrades are unfinished, pumps quickly can be hustled in if another flood threatens, Dooley says.
That’s little comfort for those responsible for the levees, especially since early spring is the rainiest and most flood-prone time of the year. Levee officials in the hardest hit states — Iowa, Illinois and Missouri — believe the corps is moving too slowly to fix the infrastructure.
“We’re very concerned,” says Stan Rolf, president of the levee district at Winfield, Mo., where a burrowing muskrat caused the breach that eventually flooded 100 homes with Mississippi River water and damaged nearly 2,000 acres of farmland. “Every farmer is concerned about it. It’s our livelihood.”
At least for now, the weather outlook appears far more favorable than a year ago, when national flood specialist Bob Holmes with the U.S. Geological Survey says there was “the perfect setup” for big trouble.
‘Always the disclaimer’
That winter’s meltoff from massive snowstorms in the Upper Mississippi Valley elevated the Mississippi and its tributaries. Persistent rains saturated the soil. All of it came to a head in June, when a storm dumped more than 10 inches of rain in some stretches of Iowa and Wisconsin.
“We’re not looking at nearly the potential of flooding this year,” says Mark Fuchs, a National Weather Service hydrologist. “But there’s always the disclaimer: If we have a big (rainfall) event we could always see significant flooding.”
Levees in some towns took a pounding in 2008 but suffered little damage. In many communities, including Hannibal and Canton in northeast Missouri, officials say the corps already has completed mostly minor repairs.
“They do a good job, they really do,” Canton Mayor Joe Clark says of the corps.
Others say the corps is moving too slowly to make sure areas protected by levees are safe, and that fixing holes is only part of the solution.
In Des Moines, Iowa, North High School principal Vincent Lewis still remembers how the nearby Birdland levee ruptured last June, sending the Des Moines River rushing into more than 200 homes, three dozen businesses and the school.
That gaping hole is fixed, but much work remains.
“I guess I would differ with the idea that everything is fine and good to go,” he says. “My concern is that if our spring is a replica of last spring, then we will be in the same circumstance again. I know there’s finances available, I know the desire’s there, I know the plan is there to fix the levees.”
But in the end, much of it just comes down to luck, says John Simon, the emergency management chief in Illinois’ Adams County.
“Fighting off Mother Nature,” he shrugs, “sometimes it just can’t be done.”