WEST MISSISSIPPI — The cost of repairing Mississippi River levees that were damaged by this year’s historic flooding could reach $1 billion, but it’s not clear how much funding will be available, a high ranking U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official said yesterday.
Col. Thatch Shepard, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi River Division, told The Associated Press that repairing the Mississippi River levee system could cost $700 million to $1 billion. The Corps budget for the fiscal year is $210 million, so Shepard said he’s hoping Congress will approve supplemental funding.
Shepard said the corps will prioritize projects based on funding when repairing damages caused by unprecedented stress on the Mississippi River system, which has cost $13 billion to construct since 1928.
At the top of the priority list is New Madrid Floodway at Birds Point, where the levee was blown to save the town of Cairo, Ill., while sacrificing thousands of acres of farm land in Missouri.
“Believe it or not, farmers are already planting again in that floodway,” Shepard said.
Equipment and personnel were moved to the site this week, and Shepard said repairs there could cost $30 million to $90 million. Repairing the New Madrid Floodway levees is vital in the portion of the flood system that protects parts of Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri.
“So you have four states that have a vested interest in how those repairs go,” Shepard said.
The corps hopes to have the levees along the river repaired before next spring’s flooding season, but Shepard reiterated that funding is a concern.
“We’re going to have to make some tough decisions here. Public safety will really be the No. 1 priority,” Shepard said.
There were preliminary signs from Washington this week that Congress is listening.
A House Appropriations panel on Wednesday approved $1 billion in emergency money to repair levees and other flood control projects damaged by flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The Senate panel has yet to act.
The corps also hopes to repair sandboils, where water seeped under levees, and levee slides, where levees eroded when the water dropped.
Shepard said the extent of that damage is still not known. The water has to go down to see what repairs will be needed in places like the Morganza spillway in Louisiana.
Shepard knows he’s throwing around some big dollar figures, but he said economists estimate that the levees saved $60 billion to $70 billion in property and infrastructure.
“Talk about a return on an investment for American taxpayers, that’s it” he said.
Shepard discussed the flood yesterday on a large barge on the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, where the water has slowly retreated toward its banks after reaching 57.1 feet — almost a foot higher than the previous record set in 1927. Officials said the river could drop below flood stage here Friday, which would be the first time it has been that low since early May.
Like other areas along the Mississippi, Vicksburg is drying out, but recovery will take time. About 200 houses flooded in the city alone, with more in surrounding Warren County and other low spots on the unprotected side of the levees. The flooded Mississippi also forced tributaries to flow backward, pushing water upstream for miles and flooding tens of thousands of acres in Mississippi alone.
Col. Jeff Eckstein, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Vicksburg District, said the river was at 43.5 feet yesterday at Vicksburg, slightly above the 43-foot flood stage.
“The system held, did what it’s supposed to do, protected everybody behind the levees” Eckstein said.