The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced this week they will rebuild the Bird’s Point Levee, but only to a height of 51 feet, 11 feet below its original height.
The announcement was met with harsh criticism from farmers, politicians and the Missouri Farm Bureau, who support restoring the levee to a height of 62 feet. That’s where the levee stood before the Corps blasted three holes in the structure in May to relieve flooding in nearby Cairo, Ill. As a result, 130,000 acres of prime Missouri farmland were flooded along with about 90 homes, forcing about 200 people to evacuate. It was estimated that the Birds Point levee breach caused a $65 million loss to the agricultural economy in the area due to flooding.
At a meeting Monday night of the Mississippi River Commission’s annual low-water inspection trip, speakers criticized corps officials for “a shoddy performance,” having a “policy of inaction” and of “playing politics.” More than two dozen people addressed the commission in a room of about 200 aboard the Motor Vessel Mississippi, the Corps’ Memphis District diesel-powered boat that hauled the explosives to Bird’s Point in May.
Much of the criticism was directed at Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the commission and commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division. Walsh gave the order to activate the floodway last spring.
Many speakers questioned the wisdom of blowing holes in the levee to relieve flooding in Cairo, Il., Hickman, Ky., and Cape Girardeau, Mo., while others focused on the Corps’ decision to rebuild the levee to 51 feet on the Cairo gauge, rather than the previous 62 feet.
Speaking in favor of rebuilding the levee to its pre-blast height was U.S. Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican. She said she cannot understand “even a moment’s delay in setting right the lives which have been overturned. The people of this region ask for nothing more than the opportunity to work their land.”
Area farmers note that without sufficient flood protection, insurance is nearly impossible to obtain, and it is estimated that without a 62-foot levee crops have a 50 – 50 chance of being destroyed by flooding. Records show the Mississippi River has risen above 51 feet at the Cairo gauge 12 times in the last 20 years.
Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst said in a statement issued yesterday that the Corps’ decision to rebuild the levee to 51 feet “will, in effect, end farming on 130,000 acres of the most productive farmland in the world. Their decision is impossible to understand and will devastate hundreds of hard working farm families. The Corps must rebuild the levees to 62 feet.”
For their part, the Corp of Engineers indicate they will spend $15 million to rebuild the levee to 51 feet, and an additional $20 million will be needed to fully established the levee at 62 feet. If Congress doesn’t appropriate the additional $20 million the levees won’t be able to be rebuilt to the original height. Officials say the Corps will see budget cuts next year, and for fiscal year 2012 the Memphis District has a $56 million budget, which is down from the previous year’s $87 million.
Missouri Senator Roy Blunt and Governor Jay Nixon both support rebuilding the Bird’s Point Levee to its original height.