KANSAS CITY — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will cost more than $2 billion to repair the damage to the nation's levees, dams and riverbanks caused by this year's excessive flooding, a sum that dwarfs the $150 million it currently has to make such repairs.
Floodwaters that raged down the nation's rivers this year have strained dams, eroded riverbanks, filled harbors with silt and ripped football field-sized holes in some earthen levees protecting farmland and small towns.
The damage estimate promises to be more significant than with a typical flood in which high water recedes quickly. The estimate does not factor in flood damage caused by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, and the corps does not have an estimate of the damage from those storms yet.
Along some stretches of the Missouri River, levees have been holding back floodwaters since June 1 as the corps lowered water levels from upstream dams that were overflowing with record runoff from rain and winter snows. That water ultimately proved too much for many levees downstream in states such as Iowa and Missouri. Record high water levels also created havoc along the lower Mississippi River from Missouri to Louisiana.
"I'm really nervous about it," Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, said of the limited resources. "I think the corps is real nervous about it, too."
The Senate is considering a $7 billion emergency disaster relief bill, but only $1.3 billion of that would go to the corps. A competing House bill would allocate $3.7 billion to overall disaster aid — $226 million of it to the corps — although Congress could provide more money in future legislation.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin said he is working with senators in neighboring states to urge support for the emergency relief.
"I have seen firsthand some of the devastation along these rivers, and local communities need financial assistance to recover," Harkin said.
Sensing it might not get all the money it needs, the corps is racing to repair the most essential damaged flood barriers before the spring runoff. Priority is being given to repairing damaged infrastructure that if left unfixed would put lives at risk when the snows start melting and the 2012 flood season begins. Repairs only meant to safeguard property from future damage would get second billing.
"We are trying to rack and stack them and see which projects need to be done quickly and which ones can be delayed for some time," said Jud Kneuvean, emergency management chief for the corps' Kansas City district. "And honestly, some of them can't be delayed. There is a high likelihood for failure. The consequences associated with failure are high."
Crews have been bulldozing earth back into place along the Mississippi River's damaged flood walls, but repairs along much of the Missouri River will have to wait until the water level fully recedes, likely by October. A dry winter would allow repair work to continue, but ice and snow could force them to shut down temporarily.
"We've got to be ready to roll when the water recedes because time is our enemy," Kneuvean said. "I will cross my fingers that it will be dry through the winter and spring."
In northwest Missouri's Holt County, more than 30 levee breaks inundated more than 230 square miles. Presiding commissioner Mark Sitherwood, whose own corn and soybean crops were ruined, said the levee damage will be in the millions.
"A lot of these little levee districts are sitting here with $20,000 in the bank," Sitherwood said. "They don't have that kind of money, and the county certainly doesn't have the kind of money it's going to take to fix this. So Congress is going to have to step up."
Waters that overflowed their banks from coast to coast will make 2011 among the costliest years of flooding in U.S. history yet will still fall far short of the damage caused by other large-scale events, such as Hurricane Katrina.
But the floods came in a year packed with disaster. In Missouri alone, historic flooding along the Mississippi River forced the intentional break of a levee that protected thousands of acres of prime farmland. In May, a monster tornado blamed for 162 deaths wiped away much of Joplin. Storms also devastated parts of the South and Irene and Lee caused heavy flooding in parts of the Northeast.
"This year, as far as weather anomalies, has been unlike anything we've seen in a while," said corps spokeswoman Monique Farmer. "There is only so much money available to be spent on repairs from damages from all of the disasters that have taken place this year."
Kneuvean, who supervises a span of the Missouri River from Rulo, Neb., to St. Charles, Mo., has identified 53 repair projects, mostly levees, that need to be completed to restore the river to its pre-flood condition. He estimates it would cost $35 million to complete the projects, which amounts to a quarter of the money the corps currently has for repairs.
The corps estimates it would cost $460 million to repair the damage along the entire Missouri River, and rivers in the Pacific Northwest, including the Columbia, that overflowed their banks this spring.
Kneuvean said the potential funding shortfall could force branches of the corps that oversee different parts of the country to compete with each other for money.
"It's a tough spot to be in," Kneuvean said. "It's not a spot we wish we were in, and it's one we wish we didn't have to put our stakeholders through."
Steve Wright, a corps spokesman, cautioned that Missouri River damage estimates are extremely preliminary and won't be complete until the water recedes to normal levels along the entire river.
Along the Mississippi, where floodwaters receded months ago and estimates are more solid, the preliminary repair total is about $780 million, including nearly $328 million for levee repair. The corps also must fix damage on smaller rivers including the Souris in North Dakota, which rose so high this year that it temporarily pushed 11,000 people from their homes and damaged hundreds of businesses.
Steve Ellwein, owner of an ice-making company in Pierre, S.D., said he is confident the corps will find money to make the necessary repairs. The 61-year-old was forced to move back to his parents' home this summer as he waited to see if sandbags and pumps would keep water out of his house on the riverbank upstream from Fort Pierre.
"If they don't fix it — they're not that stupid. You would think they're not that stupid," he said. "I just don't believe they won't come up with the money to fix the reservoirs because then, if they don't, it makes all the problems worse."