Another phase of the recovery from the historic spring flood has started – the race to repair and rebuild the levee system that was strained by the high water, and the political process to pay for it.
Relentless spring rainfall in the Lower Mississippi Valley combined with annual snow melt in the upper Midwest filled the Mississippi River with more water than it had seen since floods of 1927 and 1937.
The result was disastrous: Millions of acres of crops from Missouri to New Orleans ruined, homes and businesses destroyed and a levee system that in spots is in need of major repair.
Save the Delta, a grassroots campaign started while the water was still high, is an organization working on behalf of the Memphis-based Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association to push Congress for funding to completely rebuild or otherwise repair the mainline river levee system and the backwater levees in the Lower Mississippi Valley. The Lower Mississippi Valley stretches from Southeast Missouri to New Orleans.
Congress has already appropriated some money for levee repair. On Sept. 7, $4.86 billion was allocated for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water projects. It included $1.3 billion for work on the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, a government flood control program launched in 1928.
Save the Delta has a goal of $3 billion to completely restore the levees of the Lower Mississippi Valley to pre-flood condition.
In Mississippi, the Vicksburg District of the Corps of Engineers has just started letting contracts to repair its part of the mainline and backwater levee systems.
Kavanaugh Breazeale, District spokesperson, said last week a $3.1 million contract was awarded recently to fix two seepage areas near Eagle Lake, an area between Vicksburg and Yazoo City that was among the hardest hit by the flood.
Breazeale said the Corps was still evaluating levee systems up and down the river in Mississippi and elsewhere to see exactly how much damage was done, and compiling a list of areas that should be prioritized for repair before next spring’s flood season.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Breazeale said. “Experts are out there now still trying to find out what needs to be done, what can wait and what can’t. There’s still an ongoing assessment and that goes for Vicksburg as well as the whole division from Canada to New Orleans and everywhere in between. There is no number (for a total price tag) yet, but it’s still growing.”
During a Senate subcommittee hearing in July, Sen. Thad Cochran said the mainline levee system, which runs along the Mississippi River, did its job, preventing floodwaters from reaching people and property on the non-river side. Most of the serious flooding, he said, was along the backwater levees that abut the smaller rivers and streams that make up the Mississippi’s spider web of tributaries.
“The situation prompts me to question whether or not we need to go back to the drawing board to see what could be done to protect more people from this kind of disaster,” Cochran said.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director Mike Womack said in that same hearing that a lot of existing backwater flood-control infrastructure “was not enough to protect the citizens.”
Womack singled out the Yazoo River Basin, in the South Delta, as an example of an area whose flood-control infrastructure was exposed as inadequate. Water overtopped the Basin’s levee in several spots.
Cochran spokesperson Chris Gallegos said in an email to the Mississippi Business Journal that it was likely Congress would approve some form of additional disaster relief funding for the Corps of Engineers, perhaps as early as this week. It could come in the form of a stand-alone bill, he wrote, or as part of a continuing resolution designed to keep the federal government running after the Sept. 30 end of fiscal year 2011.