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Will record Flood of '11 lead to changes in Mississippi River management?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 14, 2011 - Whipped by 50 mph winds, the night rain pelted Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh as he gripped the railing of an Army Corps of Engineers motor boat and looked across the choppy surface of the rampaging Mississippi River.

Walsh spent that night of May 2 in a vessel "lashed to an anchor barge in the current near the top of the [Birds Point] floodway," to witness the great flood. He wrote later, "The rains continued to pound the deck ... the cold winds moved us around, and the current and water levels kept increasing as the rain storms continue to grow."

On that night, Mother Nature's rain was swelling the Father of Waters at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers — to the point at which the great river posed a threat to the world's largest flood-control system, which extends from southeast Missouri and Cairo, Ill., to the southern tip of Louisiana.

Walsh — the chief protector of that system in his role as president of the Mississippi River Commission — realized then that the Flood of 2011 could possibly swell into what river engineers call the Project Design Flood, the maximum sustained force that the levees and floodways of the lower Mississippi system were designed to handle.

With sand boils erupting and the levees being undermined around the evacuated city of Cairo, Walsh decided to fight the river's "historic chocolate tide" by deploying a last-ditch weapon in his engineering arsenal — used only once before, in 1937. He ordered the Corps to blast open the Birds Point levee the following night and send torrents of floodwater into the 35-mile-long floodway, inundating 130,000 acres.

"I don't like it, but we must use everything ... in the system to prevent a more catastrophic event," Walsh wrote. All the river people he talked with told him the same thing: "I never thought I would see the day that the river would reach these levels."

Spring's deluge is 'flood of record' on lower Mississippi

The orange flashes that marked the blasting of the Birds Point levee late on May 3 also signaled the first major action in the Corps' weeks-long battle against the floodwaters as they made their way south to the Gulf.

"This is the flood of record for most of the river gauges south of Cairo," says Scott D. Whitney, the Corps official who is heading an interagency group that is looking at lessons learned from this flood and will suggest which parts of the lower Mississippi river management system — such as Birds Point — need to be rebuilt or modified.

"From Cairo south, we set new records at just about every gauge, exceeding all historic records," Whitney told the Beacon. "1927 was the high in some areas, 1973 in other areas, and 1937 in still others. But this event is running over the top of just about all those historical measure points."

In the weeks after the Birds Point levee was breached — helping lower river levels at threatened Cairo — the Flood of 2011 inundated low areas of Memphis, Tenn.; its backwaters soaked farmland along the Yazoo River near Vicksburg, Miss., and the Corps opened major spillways in Louisiana to divert floodwaters away from the potentially threatened cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Floodgates of the Morganza Spillway, a massive structure not been deployed since 1973, were opened on May 14 — and one of those gates was still open this weekend.

"This was the first time in history that all of the floodways have been operated at the same time for the same event," said Whitney. If the Morganza and Bonne Carre spillways had not been operated, he said, "both Baton Rouge and New Orleans would have been under water."

Whitney said, "It was shaping up to be the Project Flood" at the time the Birds Point levee was breached. "But when we look now at what it turned out to be south of [Birds Point], I think we were within a foot or two of the Project Design Flood. While this was the historic record flood, it was not the Project Design Flood" that would have tested the MR&T (Mississippi River and tributaries) system to its outer limits.

"This was a significant national and international event. A structure of man has withstood the fury of Mother Nature and performed very well," said Whitney. But even though "the system as a whole performed to expected levels of design," he cautioned that the system needs to be re-examined for possible improvements. "It's like running your car engine at a very high rpm for an extended period of time; it's getting to the point that there are areas of concern. And we've seen some of those."

Even though this spring's flood displaced an estimated 10,000 people, caused one death and inundated 6.8 million acres between Cape Girardeau and southern Louisiana, the flood's impact was far less than that of the 1927 or 1937 floods,  historians and Corps experts say.

The nation's most devastating deluge — the Great Flood of 1927 — inundated 165 million acres, killed 246 people and drove an estimated 600,000 people from their homes. The harsh 1937 flood, which hit the Ohio River valley harder than it did the lower Mississippi, is estimated to have killed at least 400 people, left a million homeless and caused more than $500 million in property damage.

Both of those great floods had major impacts on the management of the lower Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The Flood of 2011 may be "the greatest test, but it's not the first test" of the Corps of Engineer's flood-control system for the Mississippi, says John M. Barry, author of "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America."

Barry told the Beacon that "this is a bigger flood than 1973" — the last time that the Corps opened the Morganza floodway. "And it may have been bigger than 1937" at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi, where Cairo and the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway are located.

But Barry cautioned that "you can't always go by gauge readings" in measuring floods, as the Corps has been doing this spring. "In 1927, levee breaks took a lot of water out of the river," he said, "so the gauge readings were lower than they would have been if all the water remained between levees."

An expert on the 1937 flood, historian David Welky, author of the upcoming book, "The Thousand Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937," also said that many levees were breached in that deluge, too — especially along the Ohio River. And when levees are overtopped, the river's water levels tend to go down a bit.

"After the 1937 flood, they started the process of building storage reservoirs — there are now 88 of them — in the Ohio River basin," Welky told the Beacon. "Those reservoirs can hold up to 10 trillion gallons of water, which could [eventually] flow into the Mississippi. So those Ohio River reservoirs can have a big impact on flood levels."

Testing the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project

Whatever the ranking eventually assigned to this spring's flood, it is clear that its sheer power will lead to a reassessment of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MR&T). Billed as the world's largest flood-control project, the MR&T is designed to protect the 36,000-square-mile lower Mississippi valley.

The MR&T is operated by the Corps under the system's governing body, the Mississippi River Commission, over which Gen. Walsh presides. [Click here for a history of the project.]

Perhaps the most controversial part of that extensive project — this year, at least — is at its northernmost point, the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway in Missouri's Bootheel. Nearly six weeks after it was activated with great controversy — including the Missouri attorney general's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the Corps' action — many of the floodway's 130,000 acres remain under water, and scouring and sand deposits have ruined farmland in other areas.

Missouri's congressional delegation is clamoring for early repair or rebuilding of the Birds Point levee, and numerous floodway landowners have joined a class-action lawsuit against the Corps.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis — pointing out that flooding along the Mississippi River has cost billions of dollars of damage over the last several decades — wrote a letter in late May asking the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee to investigate recent flooding and evaluate the level of preparedness for future floods on the Mississippi.

"This spring, as in years past, our levees along the Mississippi River have been tested. While damage has been significant in some areas, it could have been much worse," Carnahan said. "As we begin the recovery, and prepare for the threat of new flooding this summer, now is the time to examine this historic high water event so that we can improve flood protection efforts based on what worked — and what didn't."

At the same time, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, whose district includes the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway, is trying to unite House members whose districts include parts of the lower Mississippi valley to give the Corps adequate resources to repair and perhaps improve some elements of the MR&T system. Emerson told the Beacon that she may seek changes in the laws that govern the system.

"The biggest lesson to be learned from this spring's flood is that you have to stay on top of those [river-management] laws to ensure that they cost/benefit out like you originally thought," said Emerson. She said the 1928 Flood Control Act, which established the MR&T in the wake of the '27 flood, and the minor changes made to it later, "may need to be brought up to date with current realities."

Which realities? "When the system was originally built, Cairo was a thriving city; it now has about 1,500 people rather than 15,000 people," Emerson told the Beacon. "Meanwhile, the floodway's farmland and the summer farm families and our historic black community" have grown over the years on the Missouri side. "So there are a lot of hydrological things that are now different — fewer trees in that area to act as a break to the water and slow it down so you don't have scouring."

Assessing damage, examining options

The Corps and other federal agencies already have sent teams to the Birds Point area and numerous other sites along the lower Mississippi to begin the assessment that may lead to recommendations about what changes need to be made to lessen the chance of future flooding.

Meanwhile, Gen. Walsh "has ordered the formation of an Interagency Recovery Task Force that will look at lessons learned from this flood, as well as resetting and rebuilding the MR&T Flood Control System," said Robert T. Anderson, chief spokesman for the Mississippi River Commission in Vicksburg.

Leading that task force is Whitney, a Corps biologist and management official from the Rock Island district office who will be working with officials from seven states, including Missouri and Illinois, as well as 10 federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Service, the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Whitney, who helped guide a similar task force after the 2008 flood, which mainly struck the middle and upper Mississippi, told the Beacon that he and other members of the task force will look at a wide range of issues and options during their assessment.

"An important part of this recovery effort is the recognition that the river has sent us a very important message. We need to carefully evaluate what the river has told us," Whitney said. "How has the system performed? Not only the levees themselves, but the navigation channels and all the things that are part of the project need to be carefully assessed and evaluated to be able to tell a story of what happened."

At a time when Congress is slashing budgets rather than adding to them, the Mississippi analysis will require a cost-benefit analysis. Since the 1928 Flood Act, the federal government has spent about $13.6 billion in the MR&T system, which Whitney says is only 89 percent complete.

But on the plus side of the blotter, the Corps has estimated that the MR&T "has largely protected and preserved about 10 million additional acres. Current estimates are running that at least $60 billion to $70 billion in damages have been prevented" in this spring's flooding, in addition to what Whitney says economists have estimated in damages prevented since 1928: a total of about $351 billion.

"Our focus for this year's flood should not be on what we lost, but rather on what we did not lose — $62 billion in property and thousands of homes and businesses," said Gen. Walsh in a statement to the Beacon. "If we are to manage future floods of this magnitude, we must repair and rebuild the MR&T system."

In the end, Whitney says, "The question is: What do we need to be attending to in the future? What additional things do we need to consider and what options should we pursue in anticipation of future events."

He added: "We want to consider non-traditional as well as traditional alternatives to help drive down the risks associated with living near rivers."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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