On Tuesday evening, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving equipment-laden barges towards the levee at Birds Point in southeast Missouri’s Mississippi County. A decision on whether to blow the levee to relieve a rapidly-rising confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at Cairo, Illinois – and flood some 140,000 acres of Missouri farmland in the process – is expected as early as Wednesday.
Also on Tuesday, Missouri state officials filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the Corps from blowing the levee.
A statement from the Corps said “The Floodway is part of a flood risk management plan for the lower Mississippi River designed to minimize damage to property, structures and to help save lives from historic flood levels – also referred to as the Project Flood – on the lower Mississippi River.
“The Commander of the Memphis District has the responsibility to plan and operate the BP-NM (Bird's Point/New Madrid) Floodway upon direction from the Mississippi River Commission (MRC) President. The 1928 Flood Control Act gives the President of the MRC the authority to operate the BP-NM Floodway when the Mississippi River reaches 58 feet on the Cairo, Ill., gauge with the prediction to rise to 61 feet and rising.”
On Tuesday evening, Delta Farm Press spoke with Jim Pogue, the Corps’ Public Affairs Specialist for the Memphis District, about the levee set-up, expectations and the Corps’ utmost concern:
Can you speak to the Corps intentions to blow, or breach, the levee intentionally? Is this imminent, as some fear, or potentially coming down later this week?
“Operation of the floodway is not imminent. We’re very deliberately walking through the many steps, following the river, to make sure if it becomes necessary to operate the floodway, we’re in a position to do it in a timely manner that will produce the results we need it to.
“What has happened so far, as of about an hour ago, the tow with the barges that have the equipment necessary to operate the floodway have left Memphis. They’re headed north towards the floodway, now.
“They will get into the (target) area and stay there until we reach the next decision point. That will probably be late tomorrow (Wednesday), at the earliest. At that time, Major General Michael J. Walsh, (commander and Division Engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Valley Division) would make the decision about whether, or not, to move to the next steps.
“We’re basically pre-positioning the equipment to ensure we’re ready to go in case we have to.
“After that, the next step would be to continue to wait and watch the river. Or, prepare the floodway – or levee -- for detonation.
How is the levee set up and how this would take pressure off the river? I understand this was constructed purposely a long time ago.
“It was actually set up after the 1927 flood. It was only operated once, in 1937.
“That’s the caliber of flood we’re looking at here. (2011’s event) could be a new flood of record.
“What would happen is we’d open up as much as two miles of the mainline levee near the top of the floodway. This would allow the water to flow into the floodway itself.
“It would take conceivably take about 550,000 cfs. of flow out of the river.
“The reason we’d do this is to take pressure off the entire system above the floodway. If we have to operate it, it allows us to do that in a controlled manner.
“Otherwise, if it naturally overtops – which is what we’d be looking at – it would be, conceivably, completely uncontrolled. It could do a whole lot more damage not only to the levee system. … It could potentially result in a lot more damage outside the floodway.
“That’s the kind of situation we’re looking at. It isn’t something we want to do. It’s something we’re looking at with a tremendous amount of gravity.
“Nobody wants to do it and we’re hoping we won’t have to. My boss says ‘we’re preparing for war and praying for peace.’ We’re praying the river won’t come up (so high) to cause us to have to operate the floodway.”
I understand there’s about 140,000 acres of farmland that would be flooded…
“I don’t have the numbers in front of me but that’s not far off.”
Will those farmers be able to gain recompense somehow?
“I really can’t speak to that.”
It would depend on flood insurance or the like?
“I don’t have that information. Maybe FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) could help with that (question).”
What are the Corps' expectations if the levee is blown? Expectations for when the water would recede and folks could get back into their homes?
“I can’t speculate on that either. There are so many variables. Someone may have made some projections on that but I don’t have them.”
Also, would it be a mandatory evacuation or will people be allowed to stay in their homes?
“That decision will be made by the state of Missouri. That’s their responsibility.”
Anything else you want our readers to know?
“Two things. First, if it’s necessary to operate the floodway, bear in mind that a lot of that land is already going to be underwater – backflow from the outflow at the bottom of the floodway plus anything impounded from rainwater.
“So, it won’t be like a torrent of water rushing over acres and acres of dry land. There’s already significant flooding in the floodway, right now.
“Second, the protection of life and property is our utmost concern. We will do everything we can to give everybody notice if the decision-making process results in the need to operate the floodway. We want to do everything we possibly can to ensure the safety of everyone.”