ST. LOUIS — A year after the intentional breach of the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri, Sen. Roy Blunt is criticizing the Army Corps of Engineers for its rebuilding pace.
The Missouri Republican sent a letter Tuesday to Maj. Gen. Meredith W.B. Temple, acting commander of the corps, urging fast restoration of the levee to its original height of 62.5 feet. Blunt called full restoration vital for farmers and landowners whose properties are protected by the levee.
The corps has temporarily rebuilt the levee to 55 feet and hopes to get it back to 62.5 feet by the end of the year, spokesman Bob Anderson said. He said a contract for the full rebuild is out for bid.
"We've got the funding," Anderson said. "It's just a matter of getting everything lined up with contractors." The corps is also rebuilding other damaged levees in southeast Missouri, southwest Illinois and western Kentucky, he said.
The intentional breach on May 2, 2011, flooded 130,000 acres of farmland and displaced 50 families.
"One year after the Birds Point Levee breach, it is simply unacceptable that full restoration still remains months away," Blunt said. "Flood protection for people and property should always be the primary goal in river policy. Our communities cannot return to normal until we fully restore what was lost and rebuild stronger."
The Birds Point levee protects a floodway designed to be opened in instances of extreme flooding. Last year's flood set records in many locations south of St. Louis.
The corps detonated explosives that tore holes in the levee, allowing river water to pour over 130,000 acres of rich southeast Missouri farmland. Corps officials have defended the move as necessary given the magnitude of last spring's flooding. Water threatened to top the floodwall in the nearby town of Cairo, Ill.
The corps said earlier this month that breaching the levee prevented more than $112 billion in damage throughout the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the southern U.S.
But Blunt is not alone in his criticism. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, has urged that the levee be restored to its original height as quickly as possible. U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican whose district includes the Birds Point levee area, said she believes the corps "jumped the gun" in deciding to activate the floodway, basing its decision on incorrect hydrology.
Anderson said there were areas south of Birds Point in direct danger unless something was done to lower the pool of water.
The corps has spent $25 million on the temporary levee now in place. While that offers protection against most floods, Anderson said more significant flood events, such as those in 1973 and 2011, would top that level.
Fortunately, river levels are low this spring — unusually low. The river level at Cairo is nearly 40 feet lower than it was a year ago.
"It's amazing what one year can bring," Anderson said.