UPDATE: Temporary repairs on Birds Point levee nearly finished

Thursday, September 29, 2011 | 1:33 p.m. CDT

NEW MADRID — The Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to complete temporary repairs of the Birds Point levee soon, but officials in southeast Missouri continue to pressure the corps to rebuild the intentionally breached levee to its original height.

The corps used explosives to breach the levee this spring to ease flooding on the Mississippi River and help save the nearby town of Cairo, Ill. The breach flooded 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland and destroyed dozens of homes.

The Southeast Missourian reports that the corps expects to finish interim repairs at one of the three breached spots early next month. The other temporary repairs should be complete by Nov. 30.

Missouri politicians Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Sen. Roy Blunt and Sen. Claire McCaskill have been pushing the corps to rebuild the levee to its original height — preferably before next spring.

The levee is part of a floodway designed to be breached in cases of extreme flooding, a move that lowers the level of the Mississippi River. Other floodways also were opened in Louisiana during the flood, which was among the worst ever along the lower Mississippi River.

Corps spokesman Jim Pogue said rebuilding Birds Point is a priority.

"Where there is a potential for the loss of life, that's always going to be at the top of the list," he said. "But the floodway is also important. It's going to happen. It's not an 'if.' It's just a 'when.'"

Crews began working June 16 to repair nearly 15,000 feet of levee — 9,000 at the upper breach, 800 feet at the center one and 4,700 feet at the lower one. Workers have also had to fill scour holes with sand dredged from the river bottom, realign levee segments and remove excess water, according to a project update document provided by the corps to the Southeast Missourian.

The corps has spent $5.7 million to temporarily set the levee to a height corresponding to 51 feet on the river gauge at Cairo, but a full restoration of the levee to 62.5 feet will cost an additional $21 million. Though that additional funding is not currently available, Pogue said the corps intends to rebuild the levee to its pre-blast condition.

The floodway is in Mississippi and New Madrid counties. Carlin Bennett, the presiding commissioner of Mississippi County, said he continues to await an answer to an open-records request that he sent to the corps earlier this month. He wants to see documentation and correspondence to verify if the decision to breach the levee worked as well as corps officials say it has.

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