NEW MADRID — The Army Corps of Engineers is facing criticism in southeast Missouri for a plan to rebuild Birds Point levee to 51 feet — 11 feet below its height when it was intentionally breached this spring.
The corps blasted three holes in the levee at the height of Mississippi River flooding in early May to lower the river level and help save nearby Cairo, Ill. Cairo was spared, but 130,000 acres of prime Missouri farmland were flooded.
At a hearing Monday in New Madrid, the Southeast Missourian reports that several residents expressed concern about the corps' plan to rebuild the levee to the lower height.
"Fifty-one feet changes everything dramatically," said Furg Hunter, a supervisor for the St. John's Levee and Drainage District. "Our farmers are looking at a 50-50 chance of losing everything. Again."
Corps officials, including Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, were in New Madrid for the Mississippi River Commission's annual low-water inspection trip. It was Walsh, who is president of the commission and commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley Division, who gave the order to breach the levee.
About 200 people showed up for the meeting, with more than two dozen taking to the podium.
"Sir, today, I am saddened, disappointed and damn mad about what you have done to our county," East Prairie Mayor Kevin Mainord told Walsh. "Sir, just because you have the authority to blow up the Birds Point levee, it did not make it the right thing to do."
Some challenged Walsh's statement that the plan worked. But Walsh said it did.
Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, said the floodway levees would have overtopped regardless of Walsh's decision.
"The rain just overwhelmed us," Peabody said. "The floodway would have been flooded either way — either deliberately or naturally."
U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican, was among those who implored the corps to rebuild the levee to its original height of 62 feet.
"While a plan was quickly implemented to detonate the levee, the plan — if there was one — to restore flood protection proceeded at a snail's pace," she said.
"The people of this region ask for nothing more than the opportunity to work their land," Emerson said.
Some farmers said that without meaningful flood protection, insurance is nearly impossible to get. Some noted that the Mississippi River rose above 51 feet at the Cairo gauge 12 times in the last 20 years.
Col. Vernie Reichling, commander of the Memphis District of the corps, said an additional $20 million is needed to completely rebuild the levees. The corps is spending $15 million to get to the 51-foot level and if the money isn't appropriated, it won't be able to rebuild to 62 feet.
"Fifty-one feet doesn't protect anybody," said Wanda Wallace, whose floodway farm saw significant damage. "They're risking our livelihood. This was not a natural disaster. This was a man-made disaster."