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Regional levee meeting at high school is more than a civics lesson

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 17, 2010 - WASHINGTON - When history students at Shawnee High School in Wolf Lake, Ill., asked their representative to talk about a current event -- the state of levees and flood mapping along the Mississippi River -- they got an unexpected response: an important "Southern Illinois Levee Summit" to be held at their school.

On Saturday, two members of Congress -- U.S. Reps. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, and John Shimkus, R-Collinsville -- are scheduled to join local and federal officials at the high school to discuss the state of those levees and the congressional efforts to delay implementation of new flood maps that could cause economic hardship to residents who live near the river. (If votes in Congress keep the legislators in Washington, they plan to send representatives.)

In an interview Thursday, Costello said the meeting's goal is to provide a forum for leaders within levee districts and federal, state and local governments to discuss regional levee issues and the importance of flood risk management. It is a follow-up to a Metro East levee summit held in Alton in August 2007 and which led to an organized effort to finance and improve the Metro East levees.

"Right after the 2007 levee summit ... local elected officials became aware that the remapping process was taking place, and if they didn't take action and make repairs to the levees to a level where they could be certified by the Corps, there would be mandatory [flood] insurance that local homeowners would have to buy," said Costello.

Local officials from Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties levied a sales tax that is now being used to pay for levee repairs, and a common levee board -- headed by Les Sturman -- was created to supervise the project so the rebuilt levees can be certified. That is important because the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been remapping the flood plain, can impose mandatory flood insurance on people and businesses that own property that is not protected by a certified levee.

"A lot of progress has been made in Metro East," said Costello, "and they are moving forward in cooperation with the Corps of Engineers."

But some areas along the Mississippi River south and north of the Metro East region have not made much progress and are facing possible mandatory flood insurance requirements.

"It's a critical issue, in terms of economic development," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in an interview Friday. "It really casts a pall over the region because of the uncertainty about this [FEMA] mapping and flood insurance responsibilities."

For that reason, Costello convinced the U.S. House to approve legislation -- still pending in the Senate under Durbin's sponsorship -- that would delay mandatory flood insurance requirements in the region to give the levee districts more time to start repairs.

"It would give them five years to repair the levees if they met certain standards," Costello said. "In the sixth year, if the levees weren't repaired, the mandatory insurance premiums would gradually take effect over the next five years."

But the legislation has gotten bogged down in the Senate, which this week failed to act on a catchall spending bill to which Durbin had hoped to attach the House-passed flood insurance provision. Durbin told the Beacon Friday that "it's going to be difficult" to get the Senate to approve the FEMA flood-map delay in its final days before adjournment. But he said he planned to keep working on the issue in the new Congress.

"We're trying to buy some time and establish some standards," said Durbin. "A lot of people feel frustrated that there's a levee issue to be resolved. ... To have this kind of blanket requirement hanging over us really presents a problem."

Costello, whose congressional district stretches southward to Cairo, said Saturday's meeting will focus on levees south of the Metro East area. "Some of those levees are in poor shape and the purpose of the meeting is to bring folks together" -- including the levee commissioners from the various levee districts -- "to understand what the problems are, the challenges to fix the levees, and figure out what can be done to develop a plan to go forward to do what they are doing in Metro East to fix the levees."

Shimkus, whose district also includes some levee districts that would be affected, said Thursday evening that he supported the effort and would try to attend the meeting or send a representative. "I used to teach high school, so I have great appreciation for these kids who are involved in civic action," Shimkus told the Beacon. "They want answers and the public wants to be listened to. So we'll be listening."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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