June 22, 2008

’94 Report Foretold More Levee Failures


By Monica Davey

The New York Times


The levees along the Mississippi River offer a patchwork of unpredictable protections. Some are tall and earthen, others aging and sandy, and many along its tributaries uncataloged by federal officials.

The levees are owned and maintained by all sorts of towns, agencies, even individual farmers, making the work in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri last week of calculating where water levels would exceed capacity especially agonizing.

After the last devastating flood in the Midwest 15 years ago, a committee of experts commissioned by the Clinton administration issued a 272-page report that recommended a more uniform approach to managing rising waters along the Mississippi and its tributaries, including giving the principal responsibility for many of the levees to the Army Corps of Engineers.

But the committee chairman, Gerald E. Galloway Jr., a former brigadier general with the Corps of Engineers, said in an interview that few broad changes were made once the floodwaters of 1993 receded.

"We told them there were going to be more floods like this," said Galloway, now an engineering professor at the University of Maryland. "Everybody likes to go out and shake hands on the levee now and offer sandbags, but that's not helpful. This shouldn't have happened in the first place."

While the committee's recommendations certainly would not have prevented the Mississippi and its tributaries from rising to catastrophic levels, Galloway said they could have lessened the sense of helplessness and limited some of the damage.

Among the committee suggestions that Galloway said were largely overlooked: a more systematic approach to what the 1994 report described as "a loose aggregation of federal, local and individual levees and reservoirs" on these Midwestern rivers in which, the report said, "many levees are poorly sited and will fail again in the future."

And after Hurricane Katrina destroyed levees protecting New Orleans in 2005, Congress passed a bill setting up a program to inventory and inspect levees, but it failed to provide enough money to carry that out, Galloway said.

"We don't even know where some of these levees are," he said. "Someone needs to go out and count the levees and see what's wrong with them."

All along the bloated Mississippi last week, the odd nature of this collection of levees - autonomous but yet connected - played out in towns like this one, Canton, about 125 miles northwest of St. Louis.

Walking along the top of Canton's earthen levee on Wednesday, water up to its brim, Richard Dodd barked instructions into a walkie- talkie and scanned for leaks and bulges in it, the only thing left between the river and the heart of this city. Dodd, an alderman, was worried, too, about the levees he could not see - along hundreds of miles, up and down the river and its tributaries. A break in one could spare other towns, he said, or send water rushing in unexpected directions, including here.

Canton's mayor, Joe Clark, looked across the river to Meyer, Ill., where one of more than 20 levees either broke or overflowed last week. "It would sure seem better to have this all under one jurisdiction," Clark said, "but that's just not the way it is." As it happened, the overflowed levee across the river from Canton may have been what spared his town from damage.

In just one stretch along the Mississippi, based on federal data available Friday, at least 13 levees were overwhelmed by the river last week, offering a window into the system.

Three of the levees where water broke through or came over the top were built and owned by local people, towns or agencies, and were not certified as meeting federal standards, records show. Four others were built and maintained by towns or drainage district boards but had been certified by federal authorities as meeting their standards.

The Army Corps of Engineers built or helped reconstruct the other six, though local authorities now own them and are responsible for their upkeep.

Many experts said it was impossible to know whether a comprehensive levee system might have changed things last week in the areas where water flowed over levees, in the endless corn and soybean fields near Meyer, Ill., or in the trailers and homes near Winfield, Mo. Many of the levees overflowed - as opposed to breaking up or splitting open first; they were simply overwhelmed by a huge amount of water. Some, along open lands, were always expected to overflow at such high water levels.

Still, Galloway said that a broad, comprehensive flood management plan - the one presented 14 years ago - would have helped.

"Some agricultural levees would still have overflowed," he said. "But you would substantially have reduced the damage."

on Saturday

FOLEY, Mo. | Amid the battle to hold back the swollen Mississippi River, some towns in northeastern Missouri and Illinois got an unwelcome surprise Saturday as river levels rose higher than projected.

Recent levee breaks north of Canton, not far from the Iowa line, had allowed the river level to drop there and at other towns far north of St. Louis.

Officials knew it would rise again to expected crests during the weekend, but the amount of the increase caught them off guard.

The Mississippi reached 26.3 feet Saturday morning at Canton after dipping below 23 feet two days earlier, and it was expected to crest later in the day at 26.4 feet. That's still more than a foot lower than the record set during the flood of 1993.

Forecasters said Saturday afternoon that the river would crest several inches higher than expected in Hannibal, Mo., and in Quincy, Ill., where it was set to crest late in the day more than 2 feet below the '93 flood peak.

- The Associated Press

Originally published by BY MONICA DAVEY.

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