Aging Illinois levees pose economic risks to Metro East homeowners | St. Louis Public Radio

Aging Illinois levees pose economic risks to Metro East homeowners

Apr 24, 2009

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 24, 2009 - Last summer, the Mississippi River flooded, overwhelming earthen levees along its banks. Spring showers and the anticipated revision of a federally drawn flood map refocus attention on the health of the protective structures that safeguard area homes and businesses within the river's reach.

Federal officials have determined that the levees protecting East St. Louis and other cities on the Illinois side of the river don't meet standards for flood protection.  The judgment, which essentially makes the area known as the American Bottom an unprotected flood plain, has wide-ranging implications.

Obviously, the prospect of levee failure raises issues of public safety and protecting nearby residents. But there are also economic ramifications.

From a financial standpoint, the updated flood maps could create immense problems even if not a drop of water actually breaches a levee. The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires homeowners with federally backed mortgages who live in designated flood zones to buy flood insurance. Once flood maps are redrawn and these requirements go into effect, residents already hit hard by the economy will be unable to afford insurance, fear some local officials.

Showing Their Age

Levees, typically built by the Army Corps of Engineers and maintained by local levee districts with federal help, are rated for their level of protection. A 100-year levee, for instance, has a 1 percent chance of being overtopped in any given year. Insurance companies base their premiums on the assigned protection level, as well as on whether the levee safeguards a populous area or, say, farmland.

People protected by levees certified to withstand a 100-year flood aren't required to buy flood insurance, but FEMA officials say they encourage everyone to get coverage.

"If you live or work behind a levee, there's a certain amount of risk you need to understand," said Alan Dooley, a spokesman for the Army Corps' St. Louis district. "While risk can't be eliminated, it can be greatly reduced."

Dooley said levees are not designed to stop all breaches. Engineers find it acceptable for clean water to come underneath a levee. The problem is when water carrying pieces of silt and sand slips below the levee to the surface of the dry land side. This is called under seepage. The mix of sand and water that bubbles up from the ground and often resembles a water fountain can erode a levee from beneath and eventually undermine it altogether.

Many levees that protect the region are at least 50 years old. Dooley said the levees have stood up "remarkably well" over time, but "if we were building them today, we'd do them differently."

Aging infrastructure affects the levees protecting East St. Louis and other parts of the three-county area of Madison, Monroe and St. Clair. Like elsewhere, there's a threat of under seepage. There also have been failures of so-called gravity drains made of iron pipes that rust over time.

Les Sterman, executive director of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which is designated as the metro planning organization for the bi-state area, said all five levee systems protecting the tri-county region in Illinois are in various stages of development and disrepair.

Dooley said the levees protecting the area performed well in the historic 1993 flood and again last summer. The risk of levee failure remains low. But those storms exacted a toll on the structures.

After last summer's flooding, about one-third of the area's levee systems qualified for repairs, Dooley said. Roughly $20 million in federal money has already been spent fixing structures damaged during those storms. One top priority was to repair holes in the levees, a project that Dooley said has been completed. Dooley estimates that just repairing damage to the area's levees caused by flooding in 2008 would cost roughly $35 million.

Before the levees can meet FEMA standards, the corps has to take steps such as repairing damaged gravity drains and upgrading relief wells that intercept seepage. Getting the levee system into compliance with the federal standards could cost more than $180 million.

As part of an accreditation review that relies on Army Corps information, FEMA announced in 2007 that the five-levee system that protects the East St. Louis area didn't meet its flood protection standards. Nothing is official until the final flood maps are published, likely sometime in 2010, according to Ken Hinterlong, risk analysis branch chief for FEMA's Region V. The updated maps are expected to show that the levees no longer protect the area from a 100-year flood.

Still, East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks Jr. said in the fall, "We feel, based on what we heard from the Army Corps, that we're not in imminent danger."

'A Punch to the Gut'

Sterman said that while the FEMA maps are set to be finalized within the next year-plus, it's going to take far longer to repair and rebuild the levees so that they meet federal standards.

The time between when the maps are finalized and the levees are fixed is going to be a "potential economic disaster" for the American Bottom, he said. The area is home to 150,000 people and major businesses, such as U.S. Steel.

"For an area that's already seeing tough times, this is really a punch to the gut," Sterman said. "Some of the poorest people in the region live here. They aren't in position to buy flood insurance. They are worried about putting food on the table. We can tell them to buy (insurance), but they aren't going to have the resources."

Sterman said he expects people with federally backed mortgages to face the prospect of foreclosures. "It's one thing to be forced out by a flood and another to be forced out by action of a federal agency," Sterman said.

Flood insurance rates are likely to rise for people living around East St. Louis. Small businesses and homeowners in the flood plains are eligible for the National Flood Insurance Program, though they can buy private insurance if available. Larger businesses have to look to the open market. This raises concerns about what's going to happen in an area already struggling to attract and keep businesses.

Development around the Mississippi River not only involves safety issues but controversy over whether further construction should take place near the water. Nicholas Pinter, a professor of geology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said that, after the 1993 floods, some Missouri homeowners who lived near the river experienced a sense of buyer's remorse. But as time passed, that remorse faded, and construction ensued.

"There's a vicious cycle where levees promote development, and added infrastructure means more levees and more development," he said. "There's a false sense of security. The lesson of Katrina is that we're not always as safe as we think."

A Question of Fairness

Illinois officials have questioned the timing of the remapping. The Illinois General Assembly last year passed a quarter-cent sales tax increase that went into effect in January to help raise money to fix the levees in that three-country area.

Sterman noted that, under the stimulus program "We are receiving approximately $30 million for levee repair. Every dollar is welcome, but this is a small fraction of the overall cost of repairing the levees and other facilities in the flood protection system."

Alan Dunstan, Madison County board chairman, said he's frustrated that while enough local money has been raised to make the necessary repairs, federal support has been slower to come. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking before the insurance regulations would go into effect.

"I don't think FEMA understands the social and economic implications," Dunstan said. "They need to know that these areas house the poorest of the poor."

Hinterlong, the regional branch chief, responded that "FEMA does understand the significant impact of these maps, and we're charged by Congress to communicate risk. It's a public safety concern for us."

Still, Dunstan and other Illinois public officials have pushed for more time to make the repairs. Joseph Parente, director of administration for Madison County, said updating the levees could take several years.

"We understand the levees have to be worked on, and we tell people to buy flood insurance if they can," Parente said. "But we need more time."

Illinois officials also have been upset that FEMA had originally decided to remap their side of the river first. Hinterlong said the agency was following a timetable set years ago, based in part on cost effectiveness. But he said that FEMA would follow a request from U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, to release map schedules for Illinois and Missouri at the same time. 

While officials debate policy and engineers work to shore up man-made structures, Mother Nature makes her plans with indifference. Last year at this time, weather predictions showed above-average rainfall and the possibility of a "perfect storm." Robert Holmes, a national flood specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said that current predictions don't show above or below normal precipitation, and so it's hard to tell what kind of rain season the area faces.