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Property owners affected by levee breach file lawsuit against corps

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 | 10:01 p.m. CDT

CAPE GIRARDEAU — The Army Corps of Engineers' efforts to have a temporary fix on the Birds Point Levee in southeast Missouri by next March is too slow for property owners whose land was flooded when the levee was intentionally breached, an attorney for the landowners said.

Corps Col. Vernie Reichling said in a Twitter post on Monday that engineers in Memphis are developing plans to temporarily fix the levee by March 1, The Southeast Missourian reported Tuesday.

The corps intentionally breached the levee near the town of Wyatt on May 2 to reduce the threat of major flooding from the swollen Mississippi and Ohio rivers in nearby Cairo, Ill. The breach flooded 130,000 acres of prime Missouri farmland and damaged or destroyed as many as 100 homes.

The March deadline is not good enough for many of those landowners, said J. Michael Ponder, a Cape Girardeau lawyer representing "upwards of 80" people who have joined a federal lawsuit against the corps.

"That is different than we'd all hope," he said. "If the corps fails to replace the levee this summer, they will compound the misery that's already been inflicted on those folks because it will be at continued risk for flooding until the levee is repaired."

Corps spokesman Jim Pogue said the corps may be able to fix the levee before March 1.

"We will certainly be working to get that in place much faster than that," he said. "March 1 is the deadline we felt comfortable with in announcing."

Ponder said some of his clients are already forming a plan to repair the hole in the levee themselves if the corps should "fail in its obligation to protect the citizens of the spillway."

"What this really means is not only have our farmers lost this spring wheat crop, but any crop they may be able to get in once the water recedes is a goner as well without the levee," he said.

The corps is developing plans for a level of protection "we feel comfortable with in an average flood season that allows us to operate the floodway if we had the kind of excessive flooding we have this year," Pogue said.

No timeline for a permanent repair of the levee has been set.

Funding for the repairs also has not been determined, Pogue said.

Property owners who are suing the federal government claim the intentional levee breach violated their Fifth Amendment rights, prohibiting the government from seizing property without just compensation.

The claimants in the lawsuit represent more than 60,000 acres in the floodway. The government has yet to respond to the claims, Ponder said.

Meanwhile, water levels are slowly dropping in the floodway, though some land remains underwater.

"The river level is dropping to where the water will stop flowing into the floodway," Pogue said, though the Southeast Missourian reported he couldn't provide exact figures on the water level.

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