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Controversy swirls in the wake of Bootheel levee breach

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2011 - As several feet of muddy floodwaters inundated parts of the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway on Tuesday, the Corps of Engineers said the diversion was having its intended impact by lowering river levels at Cairo, Ill., and elsewhere in the region.

Just before a segment of the levee was detonated late Monday, the Cairo flood gauge had topped out at 61.72 feet, its highest level since 1937. But that level dropped by half a foot in the first two hours after the breach, and the gauge was down to 60 feet by Tuesday afternoon. Corps officials said the Cairo gauge would likely continue dropping through the weekend, and expected similar reductions in nearby Paducah, Ky.

But many of the Missouri farmers displaced by the intentional flooding were angry about the levee breach, with some joining a class action lawsuit filed Tuesday against the corps. U.S. Rep. JoAnn Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, told the Beacon just before she boarded a plane to fly over the swamped floodway that she did not think the cost to Missouri farmers and homeowners was worth a "temporary" drop in river levels.

"It's mind-boggling to me," Emerson said, noting that forecasts predict more rain and rising river levels later in the week. "If the river's going to come back up again [later], why the heck did we breach the levee and cause hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to an entire county?"

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon joined Emerson at a meeting with Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, who made the decision to breach the Birds Point levee for the first time since 1937 as part of the corps' flood-control system for controlling a "project flood" on the Lower Mississippi River.

"The [Birds Point] operation was completed as designed," Walsh told reporters Tuesday. "A number of gauge readings showed significant differences after we opened the floodway. An operation as complex as this one had enormous challenges along with 50 mph winds and weather last night."

Walsh told the governor that the river waters that breached the Birds Point levee on Monday night had flowed about three-quarters of the way down the 130,000-acre floodway by mid-afternoon Tuesday. The span between Birds Point and the floodway's southern end at New Madrid is about 35 miles.

Shortly after noon on Tuesday, the corps set off another round of explosive charges to breach another levee, closer to New Madrid, that is designed to let the water escape the floodway and flow back into the Mississippi. [Photos of Tuesday's blast were posted on the Corps' Facebook page.] Another such "outflow crevasse" is expected to be detonated later.

The controversial decision to activate the floodway won praise from Illinois officials, who had urged the corps to do everything possible to ease flooding in Cairo and environs. On Tuesday, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said he was "very grateful" for the corps' action.

But the reaction in Missouri was gloomy. With aerial photos showing farm buildings, homes and other structures in the midst of muddy floodwaters in the northern part of the floodway, Emerson and other Missouri officials worried that the waters could stagnate in the previously productive farmland for months after the spring flooding ends. Walsh told officials that the water may not dry up in the floodway until late summer or early fall.

Feds Promise to Help Displaced Farmers

With farmers and landowners estimating the floodway damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate promised Tuesday "to coordinate with our federal partners to evaluate how we can provide relief to farmers and others impacted by these recent events. Well before this decision was made, FEMA and USDA had long been preparing for, and are now ready, to support the states so they can help begin the road to recovery as quickly as possible."

A FEMA liaison officer was in Missouri's emergency operations center in the area and Vilsek said USDA agencies providing flood and disaster assistance were assessing the problems of displaced farmers. "Although the farming families who live within the floodway have known that this day was a possibility and have remained resilient throughout, our hearts go out to them," Vilsek and Fugate said. They added that "even before the decision was made to breach the levee, two-thirds of the farmland within the floodway was under water."

U.S Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., sent a Tweet Tuesday saying that he is "working closely [with] federal and local officials to ensure a speedy rebuilding effort isn't held up by red tape." To that end, Blunt, Emerson and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sent a letter to corps and Army officials late Monday contending that "the floodway should be restored in full, without delay or red tape."

The lawmakers urged the corps "to dedicate all available planning resources to respond decisively, definitively and immediately to give back the personal property, livelihoods and public infrastructure that will be lost."

Even if crop insurance issues are quickly resolved, Emerson told the Beacon, "we still have the issue of all the farm buildings, the farm hands and their homes that will either be totally flooded or washed away. We have [crop] storage bins, we have county roads, we have an important state park. I sure as heck don't know how we will be reimbursed for those."

Farmers Join Class-action Lawsuit

Upset about their losses, about 25 Mississippi County farmers joined a class-action lawsuit against the federal government filed Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

"In the process of breaching the levee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also destroyed, or is in the process of destroying, 90 households and more than 100,000 acres of the country's richest farmland," said attorney J. Michael Ponder, a Cape Girardeau attorney who helped file the lawsuit.

In a statement Tuesday, Ponder said the Birds Point levee was breached "despite the fact that the corps lacked the easement over the affected property in the floodway. What these property owners and farmers are seeking is just compensation for the land and livelihood they have lost -- possibly forever or for decades."

The complaint charges that the corps' action violated the "takings clause" of the 5th Amendment. While corps officials declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, other experts say that the land deeds in the floodway include a special "flowage easement" that allows the corps to breach the levee under certain conditions. The farmers claim that they didn't sign the easements, which were included decades ago.

Sen. Kirk Tours Cairo, Other Flooded Areas in Southern Illinois

Just back from a fact-finding mission in Somalia, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., flew to southern Illinois on Tuesday to inspect flood damage in Cairo and other towns along the Ohio River.

"The town of Cairo has been inundated with so much water there's a sinkhole in the middle of Commercial Street," Kirk said as he headed to a meeting with Cairo's new mayor, Tyrone Coleman, who was sworn into office late Monday night. The previous mayor, Judson Childs, had issued a mandatory evacuation order last weekend.

In a statement, Kirk lauded the corps' decision to breach the Birds Point levee, saying that the action had alleviated flooding fears in Cairo.

But flooding continued in many other parts of southern Illinois -- with some residents of Golconda, Metropolis and Old Shawneetown leaving their homes as the water rose.

"My hope is that the federal government will be able to provide assistance to southern Illinois residents who suffer flood damage as soon as possible," Kirk said. The state's senior senator, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, cautioned that the Birds Point levee breach won't solve all the flooding problems in the region.

"While breaching the levee at Birds Point has relieved pressure and lowered water levels, Cairo and other towns along the Ohio River are not out of the woods yet," Durbin said in a statement Tuesday.

"Dangerous sand boils and weakened levees are being monitored around the clock by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. At the same time, roughly 500 National Guard troops have joined hundreds of local residents in the effort to beat back flood waters."

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