Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Levee goes boom: Winners and losers

CHARLESTON, MO (KRCU) - The Missouri levee that the Army Corps of Engineers blasted to pieces is part of a 1930’s era operations plan to control flooding on the Mississippi River.

Now levels on the river are going down. But as with many things, someone’s gain is someone else’s loss.

Generations of Missouri farmers have been making their living with the knowledge that a man-made breach could easily flood them out.


Agriculture is king in Mississippi County, Missouri where mile after mile of row crops, irrigation pivots, and grain silos dot the landscape.

It’s no different than in farm counties throughout the Midwest, where corn, wheat, and soy beans form the basis of the economy.

But not this year … not since the Army Corps of Engineers blew a two-mile wide hole in the Birds Point levee … flooding half of the county’s farm land.

Ed Marshall is a farmer here who now has about 8000 acres underwater.

"To the economy in our area, there’s land over there will never recover," he says as he looks over the floodwaters. "Ever."

He recognizes the Corps’ need for action. And like many farmers here in Charleston, he’s resigned to the fact that the Corps will continue to operate the floodway for generations to come.

But Marshall, and others, fault the Corps’ procedures: detonating explosives over a two-mile stretch of levee, allowing for a crush of water to pound onto the spillway.

"When you blow a hole that big, that vast and that amount of water, you’re talking two miles with a twenty-three, twenty-four foot difference in elevation from where that water is coming, it’s like a small tsunami. It’s a two-mile tsunami that comes in there," he says.

Brad and Susan Hequembourg agree. We're driving to check out the set back levee, just a couple of miles outside Charleston. Brad waves to everybody we see, stopping his truck from time to time to heckle neighbors or friends.

As far as Brad Hequembourg is concerned, it’s the explosions that are the problem. Instead of blowing up the north end of the levee, he and others wants the Corps to allow slow flooding.

"This spillway is only going to displace so much water," Hequembourg says. "So why not go ahead and open it up from the south end and let it back in. If you let it back in, there’s going to be damage, but it’s only be minimal.”

The Hequembourgs and others here know that there are big risks involved to farming in a place like this. Many of their deeds contain flowage easements, allowing the Corps to release water at will. And folks seem to recognize that it’s for the greater good to flood this big, 130,000 acre chunk of their county.

But Lee Goodin and 24 other farmers here have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers.

"Well they have the easement to flood it. But they don’t have the easement to damage it … to destroy it," Goodin says.

The Corps says that its actions were necessary to reduce flooding throughout the entire Mississippi tributary system.

While water flows into Missouri fields, a nearby Illinois community was saved.

Cairo sits at the southernmost tip of Illinois where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet. It’s the immediate community with the most at stake. If the Corps didn’t act, Cairo would have been inundated with twenty feet of water.

About 150 of Cairo’s residents are taking shelter at a Red Cross evacuation center at Shawnee Community College. Evacuees have spent a week sleeping on cots without any of the comforts of home.

Carolyn Bellamy says the shelter was abuzz with rumors about blowing up the Birds Points’ levee in recent days. Few allowed themselves to believe that the Corps would actually move forward with the detonation.

"They kept saying ‘we’re going to do it, we’re not going to do it, we’re going to do it.’ I was confusing myself just like everybody else. And when they said finally they were going to it, and I heard the BOOM, I was like, OK, they did it," Bellamy says.

Bellamy was pinning her last hopes on the Corps’ action. Water was seeping through the flood walls, and sand boils were forming throughout town. Without relief, much of Cairo was bound to be destroyed.

Now the concern is for other towns along the Mississippi as the water continues its path to the sea.

Jacob McCleland, KRCU


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