Commentary Forum Topic: 5/24/11

By Steve Kelley By Steve Kelley

Flooding shows clout of Army Corps of Engineers

By Steve Kelley

Every spring, somewhere in America there is a report of a tragedy resulting from the natural flooding of one of America’s many river valleys. This year the Mississippi River has reached historic high water marks and the nightly news brings the pictures of the devastation into our homes.

The Mississippi River floods in April and May 2011 are among the largest and most damaging along the U.S. waterway in the past century. In April 2011, two major storm systems dumped record rainfall on the Mississippi River watershed. With the water levels already rising from springtime snowmelt, the river and many of its tributaries began to swell to record levels by the beginning of May.  Numerous communities along the Mississippi itself began experiencing flooding, including communities in the seven states along the Mississippi. Currently, President Obama has declared the western counties of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi federal disaster areas.

Pressure on levees led the Army Corps of Engineers to blow up a section of levees below Cairo, Ill., inundating 130,000 acres of farmland while saving the town. As a bulge of river water makes its way downstream, levees become stressed and rivers that empty into the Mississippi have no outlet causing  the flooding of even more land. The bulge will reach the Delta later this month and millions of acres are threatened.

In an even more dramatic decision, for the first time in 37 years, the Morganza Spillway has been opened, deliberately flooding 4,600 square miles of rural Louisiana to save most of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In a trade-off of where the damage from the floodwaters would occur, the decision to open the spillway will  take the pressure off levees protecting New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the numerous oil refineries and chemical plants along the lower reaches of the Mississippi.

Water from the inflated Mississippi River gushed through a floodgate for the first time in nearly four decades and headed toward thousands of homes and farmland in the Cajun countryside, threatening to slowly submerge the land under water up to 25 feet deep. There are up to 25,000 residents along low-lying sections of theAtchafalaya Basin who may be affected by flooding when the diverted river water flows through the floodway.

Some question the power of the government to decide who will suffer the floodwaters and who will be spared. Others have suggested that it’s unfair for others to suffer because of the illogical construction of New Orleans, a major urban center which sits in a bowl below the water levels of the Mississippi even when it is not at flood stage.

Compare today’s story of Mississippi flooding to our own story of dealing with flood waters. The harsh winter of 1913 was still evident during the late days of February in the Miami Valley. Piles of snow and ice were still stacked throughout the region. Then in early March, a weather front brought three days of rain totaling as much as 11 inches in some areas along the Great Miami River. Flooding in the region had been a recurring problem as the Miami River previously overflowed its banks in 1814, 1828, 1832, 1847, 1866, 1883, 1897 and 1898. But this flooding event was even more dramatic. The melting snow and ice and the nearly foot of rain resulted in the Great Miami River and all of its tributaries overflowing. Every city along the river was inundated with floodwaters.

Dayton was covered in water up to the second story of the homes and businesses in most parts of the city. The freezing, swirling floodwaters took the lives of more than 360 people. Property damage exceeded $100 million (that’s more than $2 billion in today’s economy). Many residents climbed to the second floor and into attics of their homes to escape death from the floodwaters and waited there for days.

Out of this tragedy, the Miami Conservancy District was born. The citizens of the Miami Valley — who had lost virtually everything — rallied to initiate plans for the prevention of future flooding. Some 23,000 citizens contributed more than $2 million to begin a comprehensive flood protection program on a valley-wide basis. After first seeking authority from the State of Ohio to form a conservancy district, the Miami Conservancy District was formed and construction of MCD’s flood protection system was completed in only five years.

The Miami Conservancy District’s flood protection system was the largest public works project in the world of its time. It employed a workforce of more than 2,000 people. The cost of the flood protection system was more than $30 million. Since completion of the original system in 1922, the dams have stored floodwaters more than 1,700 times. The system developed so long ago by Dayton’s leaders continues to work spectacularly.

Forum Question of the Week:
Has the Army Corps of Engineers been granted too much authority in situations like the opening of the Morganza Spillway wherein it decision determines which communities suffer and which are to be spared?

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