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Floods, hand-wringing and plans for recovery

Mississippi River Commission monitoring river levels as crest moves south. Behind the scenes account in run-up to blowing southeast Missouri levee. Recovery from flooding already in planning.  

R.D. James, a resident of New Madrid, Missouri, is a farmer, ginner, and cotton broker. And since late 1981, James has been a member of the Mississippi River Commission, responsible for maintaining the Mississippi River shipping channels and preventing flooding along with the Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi Valley Division.

In late April, James was in a unique position of attending sensitive Corps meetings to discuss alleviating flooding around Cairo, Ill., while knowing part of the solution would involve his Bootheel farmland going underwater. When the Birds Point/New Madrid levee was blown on May 2, that’s exactly what happened.

For more, see Corps levee plan dismays Bootheel farmers.

Currently, James and commission colleagues are closely monitoring river levels and flooding as massive water rushes through the Mid-South’s Delta region towards Louisiana.

On Friday morning, James spoke with Delta Farm Press on his way from Vicksburg to a meeting in Baton Rouge. Among his comments:

On current conditions in the Bootheel and the floodway…

“The spillway operation is working as planned. It dropped the river gauges at Cairo, Illinois; Paducah, Hickman, and Smithland, Kentucky; Fulton County levees and it even dropped the stage at New Madrid, Missouri, some.”

Any indication when the water will begin to drop in earnest?

“That’s the big question. Right now, there’s no answer.

“Personally, I’m hoping we can get back in there by the first of July.”

You have farm acreage in the floodway. Can you talk about the run-up to the Birds Point levee being blown?

“Fortunately, I only had some temporary structures to move out – wagons and tanks and that type of things.

“But that wasn’t the case for everyone. There are homes and farm headquarters in that floodway – folks with their way of life there. And they had to move everything. They had about five days to get that done. As far as I know, everyone was successful in moving their personal possessions and farm machinery out.

“But there are some folks who will suffer major, major damage to their homes, their farm sheds and buildings.”

Following the crest

As a member of the Mississippi River Commission, can you talk about having followed the crest downriver? Is that an accurate characterization?

“That is accurate.

“My engagement began (April 28) along with the other members and president of the river commission in preparation for the flood. We had discussions with the Lakes and Rivers divisions. We were also actively engaged with the Northwest Division (which has the authority over the Missouri River) and large locks and dams like Gavins Point.

“All those people in those divisions committed to trying to hold as much water as they possibly could out of the Mississippi River. They did exactly that. They held as much as they could for as long as they could.

“We concentrate on the Kentucky and Barkley flood control reservoirs. But those divisions have many flood control reservoirs up and down their systems. They were holding all the water they could to try and help us prevent the crest at Cairo, Ill., being any higher than it had to be.”

More on the Birds Point/New Madrid floodway…

“The (southeast Missouri) floodway is one of many tools used in order to pass down a flood of such magnitude. There are levee setbacks, there are flood control reservoirs, the river channel itself has been trained to handle more water, there are backwater areas that take crest off the river. So, that floodway is just one part of the system.

“And I’ll tell you there was a lot of hand-wringing and discussion before that floodway was actually used. I can honestly say there wasn’t one person I was with who wanted to use that floodway. It was used as a last resort to help get the flood past the bottleneck area of Cairo, Ill., down to New Madrid.”

Current conditions

On flooding in the Mid-South…

“The crest has passed the Memphis area, now. There was flooding damage to homes – but that was backwater. The levees held as they were designed to do.

“As we move into the Yazoo Basin, there is a backwater area with a levee designed to overtop in major floods. That is likely to happen and people will incur much damage in that backwater area.

“A lot of land in that backwater is already planted. I drove that area – from Vicksburg, Miss., to Greenville, Miss. – two days ago. How much goes underwater depends on how much water the crest brings. But a lot of crops will be lost and homes flooded.

“But, again, that’s part of the design of the whole (levee) system to bring such a flood safely down.”

On Louisiana flooding…

“Farther south, the next major spot is New Orleans. There is a floodway right above New Orleans – Bonnet Carre – designed to be opened to take water out of the river to reduce stages as the crest moves past the city.

For more, see Louisiana flooding: evacuations, massive loss, crop insurance questions.

“Bonnet Carre has already been operated. It is a controlled spillway that can be opened in segments. It is not yet totally open.

“At the Old River structure, the Atchafalaya splits off from the Mississippi River. Down towards the end of that is the Morganza floodway. That floodway may be activated and is designed to protect the mainline levee.

“If the Morganza is used, there are people living there and there are crops. They will suffer from flooding if the spillway is used.

“That’s unlike the Bonnet Carre, where there are no structures. The federal government actually owns the land inside that floodway.

“The main point is that the system is designed to carry a major flood through the levees from Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf. The reason we use all the floodways – and they’re used in a controlled manner and those in them are given time to get out – is they were unused and a major levee overtopped or broke, there would be people unprepared. In that circumstance, there would be loss of life and much more damage to many more structures.

“Knock on wood, so far we’re safely passing the largest flood in our history.”

System tweaks?

After seeing this close up, any tweak you’d make to the system?

“I really shouldn’t discuss that. That’s the president and Congress’ role.

“The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project is about 90 percent complete. So, there are areas where the levees aren’t yet built to the grade or width they’re supposed to be. There are some other structures that aren’t complete yet.

“We have the ability to complete them whenever Congress sees fit to appropriate the funds.”

What about cost/benefit considerations? Are numbers put before the commission or is it strictly going by the law? In other words: do you consider years worth of crop yields in a spillway versus things like buying out and moving the 3,000 residents of Cairo?

“We don’t have that kind of option. The plan for passing the flood is in the Flood Control Act of 1928. There are specific trigger points at which floodways are to be used. Those go off either elevation of water or flow of water.

“When those trigger points are reached, we’re pretty much required by law to use them.”

Anything else?

“It would be my preference to pass a flood of this size from Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf of Mexico and not have one person with a flooded home or farm. But given the amount of water at this time there’s no way to do that.   

“The entire stretch must be seen as a system, a plan. We have to trigger the backwater areas and floodways in order to pass that water through the system.

“An example: if we didn’t use the Bonnet Carre floodway, the boils and levees would overtop into New Orleans.

“I hate to see floodways have to be used. But it’s the only way to get that amount of water to the Gulf while impacting the fewest number of people.

“Right now, we’re trying to pass this flood in the lower half of the Mississippi. It’s not even halfway yet.

“But even while we’re fighting the flood, the commission is trying to figure out, as quickly as possible, how to recover and put the damaged areas back in place. We’re working on that as we speak – recovery efforts are already in the works. Hopefully, Congress will agree that needs to be done immediately and we can secure the funds to accomplish that.”

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