Thursday, May 19, 2011

Never ending flood suffering. A recipe.

This flood is causing terrible human suffering and economic loss.  In southern Illinois, thousands are in shelters, many here in Carbondale.

It's easy to focus on that suffering now, and talk about simple short-term fixes.  But only a sober view of this disaster will prevent more of the same. 

Yesterday USA Today did a nice job of interviewing scientists and policy experts, and put together a good article on how we can move forward after this devastating flood.

The New York Times has done a terrible job, running both vapid, poorly written "human interest" stories and a pointless op-ed piece by David Welky last week.  No science, no policy, no real reporting on why this, or any other flood, happens.

If our media and political leaders won't tell people why these things happen, we're doomed to witness them again and again.  The human and economic costs are horrible, and not sustainable by any measure.

More of the same is a certain recipe for continued loss and suffering.

USA Today recently ran an op-ed article by Republican Representative Jo Anne Emerson. 

I opposed the destruction of Birds Point because the authority to do so discounts the well-being of Missourians as well as the ability of levees at Cairo, Ill., to hold back floodwaters. The possibility that blowing up the levee saved others in the system is cold comfort to Missourians who also have a right to flood protection.

Returning the river to its natural state represents a high ideal for environmentalists who live in safer places, but reducing flood protection is an unthinkable violation of property rights and liberty for Americans who have lived beside the river for more than a century.

Rep. Emerson gives us exactly the argument that will insure more flood loss and human suffering.

Her constituents in the Bird Point - New Madrid Floodway knew, or should have known that it was a bought and paid for component in a massive emergency flood control system.  A system mostly paid for by people living outside the floodplain in "safer" places.  A system that has given untold economic benefits to the people living in it by protecting their land from flooding for over 80 years.

That Floodway was specifically designed for the monster flood we now see, and operated by policy, not politics.

Rep. Emerson and others know that, and so should the people living there.  She, and other leaders, should explain the hazards and true cost of living in flood prone areas, but instead make political hay.  This is irresponsible because it will inevitably lead to more loss and human suffering from floods.   Instead of calling for a reevaluation of the levee system and the human settlement in the floodway, she calls for a rebuilding of exactly the same system, and points a finger at "environmentalists."

And calls operation of the Floodway a "taking" of private property.  It is easy now to say these things to people who see themselves as victims of unjust federal policy.  Not so easy to stop it from happening again.

There are victims in other places here:  The massive big river flood control works on the Lower Mississippi, including levees, pumps, access roads, bank protection and never-ending federally-subsidized maintenance, keep flood off cropland, but they significantly increase stages in larger floods.

So they make the floods higher, and more damaging, in other places.  That's one reason the Birds Point - New Madrid Floodway was constructed.

UPDATE:  Anne Jefferson has posted an excellent piece on levees and flood control.

When the Birds Point levee was blown up (according to design, policy, and plan) in 1937, stage at Cairo dropped seven feet.

Several of my neighbors here west of Carbondale lost the contents of their first floors as the Big Muddy River (a tributary to the Mississippi) backed up to to a stage nearly three feet above the previous record.  Surfaces I suspect haven't seen much water since the end of the great Pleistocene floods were inundated.

I agree with Rep. Emerson that there has been a "taking of private property" in this flood.  Not from her people in the Floodway, who have enjoyed vast economic benefits, and were living on land with deeded, paid for flood easements.

That "taking" was like giving somebody $10 and asking for $1 back.  Eighty years later.

The taking has been from thousands of others, well outside the Mississippi River's floodplain, damaged in this flood by unnaturally high stages.  And from federal taxpayers.

The huge federal flood control systems along our big rivers are the very definition of pork barrel politics.  They pay gigantic benefits to those living in the floodplain.  The contractors who build them, and their local employees, make money.  When commercial development follows higher levees, land values skyrocket.  Federal tax dollars further subsidize flood insurance, because the commercial insurance market never will; it's too risky.  Nobody could afford the true cost, so taxpayers living on high ground subsidize it.  And also the costs to fight floods and then clean up afterwards.

No private insurance company will offer insurance for homes in a floodplain.  Shouldn't that tell us something?  Where are market forces in this?  Why don't we see private mainline levees along the Lower Mississippi?

In this time of Republican calls for smaller government and less spending, this big entitlement, the "right" to protection from floods seems to be off the table.  And no talk of "free market" solutions; it's just not economically sustainable to protect cropland with huge levees along our big rivers.  It requires massive federal subsidy.

Nicholas Pinter's 2005 Science piece remains a defining paper on this topic.  The development behind federal levees in the St. Louis region he describes is shocking, and when that land, flooded in 1993 and now covered with $billions in development, goes underwater again, the destruction will dwarf that we're seeing at Birds Point.

Top illustration; turn of the century drainage project in southern Illinois; below, figure from Pinter, 2005.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The New York Times falls down on this flood.

As this historic flood moves through the Middle and Lower Mississippi Valley the paper of record gives us articles like this, here with my annotations.

Nothing about why this flood happened, no history, no science, no informed analysis.

Nothing that might prevent the suffering the article describes from happening again. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bigger, stronger levees are not the answer.

Thanks to Jon Remo for this guest post.

As the Mississippi River Flood of 2011 reaches the Gulf of Mexico much attention has been paid to the system of levees, floodwalls, flood retention dams and floodways constructed under the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MR&T) after the "Great" Flood of 1927.  It appears the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Mississippi River Commission have successfully used the flood control tools of the MR&T project to protect the Mississippi River Delta (Lower Mississippi River Floodplain) from yet another potentially catastrophic flood. The MR&T project has endowed the Lower Mississippi Valley with the most extensive and likely the greatest flood protection system in the United States.  Some have estimated that the system of levees and floodways can protect the majority of the Mississippi River Delta from up to the 750-year flood.  However, as we have seen from media reports, not all of the Delta's inhabitants benefited from the system’s protection and thousands of others suffered from intentional flooding as emergency floodways were activated.

The USACE estimates over $13.1 billion have been spent on the MR&T project since 1928 and remind us that the project is not slated for "full" completion until at least 2030.  The Corps likes to trumpet their estimated 24 to 1 cost benefit ratio for this project.  While this benefit sounds impressive, the economic analysis does not account for the maintenance or operation of the system, estimated today to be at least $130 million annually, flood fighting costs, or other environmental externalities (USACE, 1998).   Despite the cost, the success of the MR&T flood control system has renewed calls for bigger and stronger levees for many flood prone areas.  However replication of such large and extensive flood control works elsewhere in the United States has proven economically and politically infeasible and unsustainable.

Efforts to replicate the MR&T style of structural flood control, even in the heyday of these projects  (the 1930s to World War II and again after the war into the 1960s), outside the lower Mississippi River Valley were often scaled back to lower protection levels (generally 100 to 500-year flood protection for urban areas and 50-year or less flood protection level for agricultural areas) because of costs.  The cost of constructing many levees was borne largely by the Federal Government with little or no local contribution.  However, once completed, the Federal Government turned these levees over to local levee and drainage districts which were put in charge of collecting taxes for the maintenance of the levees and associated flood infrastructure.  In many areas there was not a sufficient tax base to support proper maintenance.

The thinking when the levees were built was people and business would move into the newly protected areas and a tax base for support of these structures would materialize. This has often not been the case, particularly in the agricultural levee districts. However, underfunding of levee maintenance is not exclusively a rural issue.  Underfunding of  levee and floodwall maintenance in urban areas is common.  As a result, many levees and floodwalls (hundreds to thousands of miles of them) throughout the United States have been deemed by the USACE as either minimally acceptable or unacceptable (i.e., the levee would not perform as designed) condition.  Under Public Law 84-99 (PL 84-99), levee sponsoring agencies that fail to live up to maintenance obligations are classified as inactive and become ineligible for federal levee repair and assistance funds. Maintenance and operating costs are frequently a financial challenge for floodplain communities, and these costs are rarely considered in cost-benefit calculations for levee projects. For example, a recent estimate by the USACE found that up to $500 million is needed to address critical maintenance issues for three levees (Wood River, Chain of Rocks, and Metro East) along a 50 mile stretch of the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

Recent cost benefit studies by the USACE have underscored that large scale levee enhancement or expansion are not cost effective. For example, the Upper Mississippi River Comprehensive Plan (UMRCP; USACE 2008) looked at the costs and benefits of a number of different levee and floodplain management strategies with the goal of reducing flood damages along 970 miles of the Upper Mississippi River (UMR).  Plan H of the UMRCP, with an estimated cost of $3.9 billion, proposed adding 500-year levees to both urban and agricultural areas along almost all of the UMR.  However, despite Plan H  benefit/cost ratio of 0.05 (5¢ of benefits per $1.00 invested), it was endorsed by the Mississippi River Commission and floodplain stakeholders and continues to enjoy considerable local support and political play each time Federal stimulus or other legislative action has been considered to fund this project.

Despite a bias toward structural flood control measures, the UMRCP did consider a plan, Plan J, which called for the removal of all agricultural levees and using buyouts for homes not protected by levees while maintaining the 500-year protection level in urban areas.  Plan J had an estimated total cost of $3.2 billion which is $0.7 billion cheaper than protecting everyone to the 500-year flood level. This plan would have significantly reduced the flood exposure along the UMR floodplain and decreased the flood risk in urban areas because floodwater would have more area in the floodplain to be stored lowering the water heights on the urban levees.  In contrast, Plan H would have  promoted further floodplain development, increasing flood exposure, increased flood levels, and consequently higher flood risk for the urban levees because of the reduction in floodplain storage created by the higher levees protecting agricultural areas.

Unfortunately, Plan J has received little support from floodplain stakeholders and their political representatives.

Elsewhere around the world and in forward thinking regions within the United States, officials and stakeholder groups are either working toward or have implement plans similar to the UMRCP Plan H.  For example, the Dutch government has fundamentally shifted its approach to flood control to a policy of “more room for the rivers,” meaning creating new storage and conveyance space rather than continuing to raise the levee. On the Meuse River, France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands adopted the Meuse High Water Action Plan, focused on land use activities from a water perspective, longer storage and slower release, and space for the river.  These programs are not purely academic proposals. Since 1988, the Integriertes Rheinprogramm of the state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg, Germany, has reduced peak flood stages to 1950 levels by adding 212 million m3 of storage on the floodplain. In the Netherlands, the “Room for the Rhine” doctrine was adopted in 1997, and the Dutch government has dedicated 3 billion to a broad toolbox of levee alternatives (Pinter, 2005).

In the U.S., after last years’ devastating flood on the Cumberland River, Nashville is planning to expand its current greenway along the river which will provide increased water storage and protection from floods.  The program Nashville Naturally includes goals to increase the metro park system by 30%, protect more than 10,000 acres of floodplain and other sensitive natural areas and establish large-scale preserves in every bend of the Cumberland River.  In 1997 Pierce County, Washington set back nearly two miles of levees along the Puyallup River; this action  reduced flooding in the City of Orting, Washington during two recent floods in 2003 and 2006.

Scientists, engineers, floodplain managers, and decision makers in the U.S.  have realized for decades that the optimum strategy for reducing flood losses is to limit or reduce infrastructure on the floodplain. However, most federal flood control policy continues to encourage floodplain development by financing construction and enhancement of levees, further underwriting the risk of flooding, or eliminating incentives for responsible local decision-making. Federal flood control spending disproportionately supports the construction of levees and dams, encouraging greater floodplain development.  In areas where extensive development has occurred we will need to maintain adequate flood protection.  In areas that are relatively undeveloped we must resist attempts to expand or enhance flood protection because it only increases future flood risk and history has shown it is not fiscally sound nor in most places sustainable without continuous and substantial subsidy from the Federal Government.

Dr. Jonathan Remo is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.  His areas of research and expertise include fluvial geomorphology, hydrology, hydraulic modeling, river management, flood loss modeling, and pre-disaster mitigation planning. His research and professional projects have been supported by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Illinois Emergency Management Agency, and the National Commission of Energy Policy.

Illustration:  Nineteenth century floodfighting in Louisiana and the evolution of levees there through 1914, from USCE.

Friday, May 13, 2011

LRRD appreciates Lily Hwang on her one-year anniversary.

My wife Kate met Lily as she was finishing her MS  in Forestry at SIU-Carbondale and told me "you need to talk to her, she's amazing."

I did, and she is, and we hired her, and Lily Hwang has done amazing things for us.

She's a brilliant scientist and teacher.

She volunteers time on weekends for environmental education.  And works extra hours for Little River Research.  A lot of extra hours.

And always she's kind, caring, and funny, watch the movie.

Thanks Lily, from me and all of us, for everything.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wader-clad teevee clowns cover snakes.

A comedy break:  Jon Stewart, one of my heroes, has weighed in on the ridiculous coverage our media give to floods.

I can't stand to watch TV news coverage of any kind, but yesterday decided to give it a try, and watched in horror as Diane Sawyer, in waders, showed video of a harmless water snake and described it as "deadly poisonous" and "having no fear whatsoever of humans."

No history, no coverage of flood policy, no mention of why so many houses are underwater in Memphis.

Snakes:  I've worked in water all my life, grew up in the southern swampland, and (bonus) have been bitten by a poisonous snake (it's not a big deal but you get to talk about it forever).

Snakes are the last thing people need to worry about in a flood like this, but invariably the idiotic "snake infested floodwaters" meme emerges.

Because so much of the media (TV in particular) thinks its job is to entertain and frighten people.  And flood control policy is not very entertaining.  So we get shallow, meaningless coverage of a historic, devastating flood.

So we can look forward to more flood suffering and economic loss, none of which, I'm sure, will involve snakebite.

Here's a link if the embedded video gives you problems.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Birds Point flood coverage, blowing a fuse.

Today the receding Mississippi and Big Muddy River let me drive to work without a long detour.  My neighbors are filling demolition dumpsters with flood damaged stuff.

Flooding causes terrible human suffering and reporters rightly cover that.  Compelling stories, but terrible science and policy if we ignore the root causes.  The press has it wrong on Birds Point.

Typical phrases:  "Blowing the levee at Birds Point was necessary to save Cairo.  A last ditch desperate attempt.  Farmers were sacrificed for a decaying city.  Unfair.  Arbritrary.  Stomach churning."

Desperate, always desperate. 

Blowing up the Birds Point levee to open the Birds Point - New Madrid Floodway was automatic, legal, and predetermined by an eighty-year-old plan. 

Nobody made a desperate decision.  The Army Corps played this drama, and it's hard to blame them.  They blew up a levee in the middle of the night, a terribly dangerous and complex operation.

If I turn on my coffeemaker and toaster oven at the same time, I'll blow a fuse.

Did the fuse make a desperate, arbitrary, last ditch attempt to save my house, at the expense of my coffee and toast, from burning by electrical overload?

No, it tripped at 15 amps, as designed.

The Birds Point - New Madrid floodway is a bought and paid for, debated to death, eighty year old fuse.  Beyond the politics, it is no more than that.

After the 1927 flood, the Army Corps and Congress realized it wasn't possible to build levees along the Lower Mississippi River to contain the largest floods.  So the Corps designed and built in fuses, and Birds Point is one of these.

Missouri politicians have been lobbying on Birds Point for years.  Colleague Nicholas Pinter's ongoing (unpublished, thanks) research shows that the trigger level for opening the Floodway has been raised from the original 1927 design level of 55 feet at Cairo to 60 feet.   The Floodway was opened at nearly 62 feet last week.

So local politicians have long been aware of the Floodway's function, and lobbied to raise the the flood level at which it would be used.

Over eight decades, as they enjoyed highly subsidized protection from massive Federal levees.

If our press can't understand this simple relationship, in the midst of this historic flood, what hope do we have for sustainable flood policy?

Thanks for links from Wired Mag's Clastic Detritus,  and NASA's Earth Observatory series.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Flood disasters are always old news.

We're about to see the biggest Lower Mississippi flood in history.   Parts of Memphis are being evacuated, and the Mississipi Delta may be in for the worst it's ever seen.

Terrorists who could never match these floods dominate the front page.  Tornadoes, rightly so.

Shallow news coverage sets us up for another flood disaster.  We'll never have a sustainable, just, flood policy without sober, scientific, post-flood policy development.  We hoped for this after  the 1993 floods, but it didn't happen.

Example:  $2.2 billion in new development has occurred in the St. Louis area alone on land that was under water in 1993.

In 2007 SIUC's Global Media Research Center asked me to give a talk about media coverage of floods. The Center videotaped and published it.

In thirty minutes I cover flood science and how the media sees it.

If you're a reporter, please watch this.  I promise you this (low quality) video will change the way you view floods and improve your reporting.

If you're interested in the crazy way media covers flood damage and poor black people (Cairo) versus, well, other people (farmers, guys who build merry-go-rounds), skip to around 30:00. And to 31:44 for stomach churning commentary by Fox News's Bill O'Reilly.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Giving and taking at Birds Point. Levees for Libertarians?

The Cape Girardeau-based Southeast Missourian has done a good job during this flood, and today published a news article mentioning flood easements.   

But it should have been on the Op-Ed page.

While acknowledging the 80-year old history and controversy over compensating farmers for flood easements; that is, paying the residents of the Bird Point – New Madrid Floodway for the right to use that land as an emergency floodway, the article ignored two important points:

--While farmers and politicians talk about a “taking” of land in the floodway, nobody mentions the very large “giving” that came about when the huge federal levees were built in the 1930’s.  Land behind them rose greatly in value, and farmers there have enjoyed over 80 years of protection from them; and if they’ve paid at all, paid a small fraction of the cost for that protection.

--This giving was highly subsidized by the US taxpayers, few of whom will see any economic benefit from it.

At any time the Floodway residents could have taxed themselves (and indeed some “drainage districts” do this), built higher levees and bought themselves out of this.  Why didn’t they?  Because the system of big river federal levees to protect farmland could not exist without large subsidies from people living outside the floodplains.  The farmland’s economic output could never support it.

The Missourian raises the specter of collectivization:

One corps [sic] official said the four floodways along the Mississippi River remind him of Soviet Union-era collectivization, taking individual property for the greater good.

What about the federal tax money taken from those of us living on high ground to build levees around the farmers at Birds Point?

The illustration is one of dozens from this document clearly spelling out operation of the Birds Point - New Madrid floodway.  And this problem is not limited to the United States.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Floodways are for floods.

Check out this NASA image from today and consider whether blowing up the Birds Point Levee might lower record flood elevations at places other than Cairo. 

Only one major outlet I know of, the Wall Street Journal, got the Birds Point story right today, by mentioning flowage easements.

Landowners in the Birds Point - New Madrid Floodway knew, or should have, they were bound by flood easements.  These easements say  "If a huge flood comes, I may need to flood your property.   I'm paying you for that right, $this much, now."  The easement money is compensation for a reduction in land value.

Bought in the 1930’s (and some later, I’m not sure).  Anybody buying land, for a house or farming, can see the flowage easement, paid for by the Federal Government, and know that, if the Mississippi River at Cairo gage hits sixty feet, land in the floodway will be intentionally flooded. 

The people of the United States have paid for the right to to open that floodway as part of a designed flood control system.  And also for design, construction, and maintenance of the monstrous federal levees that have protected the farmland in it for eighty years.  A huge economic benefit.

When the Army Corps detonated expolosives to open the Birds Point - New Madrid Floodway, it  was bound by law, not “last ditch desperation,” or debates over who on which side of the river works harder, or anything else.  The Corps dutifully followed a well-debated eighty-year old plan that has the force of law. 

Landowners were compensated when the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway was built eighty years ago.  So much so that the U.S. Justice Department halted the project, for a while, over excessive payments.  

The reduced value of flood-prone land, whether there are easements in place or not, is built in to property values.  People build houses in flood-prone places because it’s cheaper to live there, at least in the short term, if you’re lucky and the Mississippi doesn’t hit 60 feet on the Cairo gage.

From the WSJ article, quoting farmer Bryan Feezor:

"If I had known this was going to happen, that corn [he planted] would still be sitting in a bag," he said. He didn't buy crop insurance because he said it's too expensive in the floodway, even though the area was used to carry water only once before, in 1937.
 The Floodway was very nearly used in 1983.  Crop insurance is “too expensive” in the floodway because the risk is high, and insurance companies adjust cost to  risk.   

And nobody will insure a house in the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Birds Point myths, and shame on the New York Times

Late last night the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) blew a hole in the Birds Point levee breaking windows (according to NPR) in a building where people living in the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway had gathered to commiserate.

Press coverage is terrible.   

Today a New York Times article featured a couple whose house was flooded.  They had no insurance.  Because nobody would insure them.  Because they built a house in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

Times reporter A. G. Sulzberger  notes only that these folks were flooded after a big mean, unjust, government explosion.  And they worked hard.

I’m sad for those people, and for this sorry reporting that does nothing to fix what led to the the destruction of these homes and farms.

I have flooded neighbors, only one road to my house is open.  It’s terrible.   We’ll see lows in the 30’s tonight in southern Illinois; people are cold wet, scared, miserable, and desperate.

But the typical response of the press – to focus on human suffering and tragedy at the expense of analysis of the cause of it, and then move on after the flood – enables our flawed and unsustainable flood policy and gives us more of the same.

I was disappointed to hear NPR interview one of the farmers bringing a class action suit against the Federal Government over the opening of the Floodway.  With no mention of why the Corps opened it.

Here are problems, omissions, and misconceptions I see in our reporting and debate:

The COE arbitrarily decided, at the last minute or “in desperation” to destroy a perfectly good levee, and sacrifice hard working farmers’ homes and farmland to save a decrepit town full of poor Black people on the other side of the river.

The COE simply executed a plan according to law. An eighty-year-old plan any smart fifth-grader could understand. After the devastating 1927 flood, COE engineers developed a flood control system that was hotly and widely debated, and ultimately passed by Congress.  It included “floodways” to carry monster floods like this one on parts of the Lower Mississippi.  There was no other alternative; levees high enough to contain these floods can’t be built.  The floodways shunt water onto the floodplain and lower flood levels.  According to this plan, the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway was designed, built, and then flooded, using dynamite in a 1937 flood, and in 1983 the COE very nearly used it again.  Local government officials know about this history, and a homeowners who can’t get insurance or a mortgage, like those featured in the Times article yesterday certainly know why.

Ruben Bennett, 88 years old, featured in the Times article, lost a house when the floodway was first operated, according to plan, in 1937, and has now lost another one.  Uninsured.

More on this from a TNC scientist.  And link to documents clearly spelling out floodway operation.

The flooding of Missouri farmland to save Cairo was a “taking” of land by the Federal Government.

Huge federal subsidies built the levees on the Lower Mississippi.  The farmers inside these levees, who’ve had over eighty years of protection from flooding, have paid a tiny part of the total bill for the design, construction, and never ending maintenance of those levees.  The owners of the land in the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway were compensated with cash payments and “flowage easements” for exactly what happened last night.  There are some gray areas, it’s possible some of the landowners didn’t have flowage easements for farmland.  But any house built in that floodway was in grave danger, farmland can stand flooding, no house should have been built there.

 When the big federal levees were built, there was a great “giving” to the landowners who have enjoyed their protection for eight decades.

 It’s a stupid, unfair plan, somebody should have changed it.

When the plan was put into place in the early 1930's, Cairo was white-owed, had 15,000 people and was thriving.  Missouri Congressman Bill Emerson did try to change the plan, in 1987, and the COE did a big study, but found no economically feasible alternatives.   The farmers in the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway have had eighty years to challenge yesterday’s action, to buy back their flood easements, to move to high ground.  People living in the Floodway have had plenty of time to debate this.  It shouldn’t be done with 60 feet of water on the Cairo gage. 

Thanks to the Southeast Missourian for a link-rich page that includes source documents.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spectacular NY Times fail on Birds Point.

Just as I finish a post on bad media coverage, the New York Times jumps in with a sad, example.

Nothing against Mr. Bennett.  But he knows about flooding.  From the article:

After growing up in the spillway,[sic, floodway] Mr. Allred left, working many jobs before persuading his wife to return to the country to farm. Six years ago, they built a house with their savings — about $100,000 — but were unable to get a mortgage or insurance because of the flood risks.
 Emphasis mine.  No mention of an eighty-year-old agreement that the land was part of the paid-for Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.  Mr. Bennett couldn't get a loan because he wanted to build in a designated floodway.

More from the article:
The record-setting 1937 flood — the only other time the levee was intentionally breached — destroyed his family home.
Staying to raise a family of his own, he watched the area transform into thriving cropland, rich with corn, soy and wheat. He ran a grocery store and a tire repair businesses that made him the best-known man in the spillway. A decade ago, he closed the store, and his wife died. But he remained. So did the risk of flood.

Mr. Bennet saw his home destroyed in 1937, in accordance with a well-known flood control plan for the paid-for Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, and built there again.   And the Times portrays him as a victim and mentions none of this.

Blowing up Birds Point; interview with Jon Remo.

Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway operation, from undated Mississippi River Commission report.
Today I interviewed Jonathan Remo, a geoscientist at SIU-Carbondale.  He and colleague Nicholas Pinter are accomplished experts on big river flooding and flood control engineering, with ongoing projects on the Middle and Lower Mississippi and a deep body of published work.  Pinter’s 2005 Policy Forum paper in Science  is a good starting point. 

Thanks to Jonathan and Nicholas for help with this post.

Tonight the Mississippi River at Cairo (we say it KAY-roh) at 61.44 feet, nearly two feet above the 1927 record stage.  The Lower Mississippi (which begins at the Ohio confluence at Cairo) will see record flooding, at least on the upper reaches of the Lower Mississippi.  The levees there are old and untested; the Ohio did not flood in 1993 and the Lower Mississippi was spared.

The Birds Point Levee – Cairo conflict may end up as a footnote when this flood is over.

I hope to do a series of posts here covering scientific and technical issues neglected by the media and to shed some scientific light on what is an unsustainable flood control policy for much of the Mississippi River.  (This is close and real for me; tonight I could grab my canoe, put in a few meters from my house onto backwater from the record high Big Muddy River, and get to New Orleans)

Word has just come from the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) will use explosives at Birds Point to put the floodway in operation.  No novelist could imagine a greater confluence of race, class, nature, politics and 250 tons of explosives, now to be set off in the middle of the night.  This is why our  flood control policy is flawed.   Floods create vast human drama and misery.  We overreacted during them, and immediately after, and then forget.

Yesterday the Nature Conservancy’s Jeff Opperman posted an excellent piece on the history and politics of the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway.   He notes the “blowing up of Birds Point” is not the last minute, desperate plan the media have portrayed, but a well-known one going back to 1927.  The floodway was operated, with some assistance from dynamite, in 1937.  The farmers in the floodway live there knowing this plan exists, as recently as 1983 the COE came very close to opening it, and in 1987 local politicians, with much publicity, tried to get the COE to build a different system.   All this is documented in a recent report by the Mississippi River Commission here.

The function of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway is well known to local residents, and farmers in the floodway were compensated by the Federal Government for flood easements.  The floodway was paid for a long time ago.

Jonathan noted that state and local policy in Missouri, which somehow allowed about 100 houses to be built in the floodway, shares blame.  In the 1980’s I worked as a river scientist in Missouri.  I ran into strong Libertarian leanings, and some of the most hard-core of those folks farm land protected by big Federal levees.  Who want government to leave them alone.

Something to address in our current national debate on budget deficits and entitlements?  More on that in another post.

The Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway is part of a Lower Mississippi flood control system that includes several such floodways as an alternative to higher, more expensive, and more dangerous (when they inevitably fail) levees required to carry the design flood.  The system was conceived and built after the devastating 1927 flood that made clear to engineers of the day that a “levees only” approach was unworkable. 

The Birds Point – New Madrid floodway shunts about 550,000 cfs out of the Mississippi channel, and the levees that constrict it and raise river stage, onto its former floodplain.  Recent analysis by the COE says this could drop stage at Cairo by seven feet. Cairo is now seeing about 900,000 cfs from the Upper Mississippi Basin 1,350,000 cfs from the Ohio.

Tonight the levees in Cairo are not in good condition, sand boils have formed and the city is under mandatory evacuation orders.  Jonathan noted that 63.0 feet at Cairo – the current peak prediction – would not overtop the levees, but given their pre-flood condition and the length of the flood, would almost certainly cause them to fail.

Worst case:  They might still fail after the COE opens the floodway tonight.  We could see 100 houses lost in the floodway, much damage to farmland, and loose Cairo as well. 

I’ll end this with a few of Dr. Remo's observations.  At record stages, the discharge-stage relationship is unknowable.  We can model this on smaller rivers, but a half-mile wide Mississippi at record stage is too complex.  So prediction of flood elevations with increasing discharge becomes very difficult.  Especially at confluences, and at Cairo now we have the mother of all confluences.

We’re witnessing the beginning of an unprecedented test of  an 80-year-old flood control works on the Lower Mississippi River.  Regardless of what happens at Cairo tonight, the system below it is old, not in good shape, not well understood, and about to see record flooding.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Blowing up Birds Point.

Sandbagging in Cairo, 1937

UPDATE:  Excellent post on this issue by TNC Scientist Jeff Opperman.  I'm interviewing a couple of people and will follow up later today (May 2).

As promised, here are the best links I can find for news on the lower Mississippi flooding and the Birds Point levee situation. 

At home I'm about 50 miles north of Cairo, Illinois, and 15 miles east of the flooded Mississippi; the Big Muddy River has backed water to within 30 feet of my house and flooded most of the roads leading to it.

Blowing up the Birds Point levee to save Cairo would fit into the best of Steinbeck’s novels.  It has hydrology, geography, geomorphology, rich history, and the politics of race, class, cross-river conflict.

Flood control projects on these big rivers are unbelievably massive, the largest public works projects in history.  Thousands of miles of earthen levees and, in cities like Cairo and St. Louis, concrete floodwalls.  The levees are huge; near here they are thirty feet tall and over two hundred feet across at the base.   Huge pumping stations lift tributary water over the levees during floods.

These works need constant money for maintenance.  Mostly supplied by the federal government.   All of it, after the 1927 flood, was conceived, designed, and built by the federal government.  The big bottomland farmers in southeast Missouri Bootheel are very fond of these government-built-and-maintained levees. Rush Limbaugh comes from the Cape Girardeau there.  You won’t hear him criticizing this entitlement.

Cairo, like New Orleans, was a great spot in the age of river commerce, but always geomorphically incorrect at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi, highly alluvial and still strongly in the grip of  Pleistocene fluvial geomorphology.

And now poor, seventy-percent African American.  Sitting across from the the all white farmers in the New Madrid floodway, assigned in 1927 as a place to divert floodwaters from Cairo, which was thriving then.   
Those floodway landowners, big farmers, in Missouri have been compensated, by the federal government, for their floodway status.  Since the 1930’s, that land has been set aside for this purpose.

It's hideously complex. the science alone is crazy.  Add the politics and I'm not sure what to do.

End editorial.  News links I could find:

Southeast Missourian special web page with comprehensive reporting and many links to Army Corps documents, legal documents, weather, river stage information.  Lots of YouTube video of flooding and flood fighting.

The Memphis District, US Army Corps of Engineers, has a YouTube channel
And a Birds Point New Madrid Floodway Facebook page!  Link, I hope

 St. Louis Beacon reporting:

Link and image rich Wikipedia entry for Cairo, Illinois,_Illinois

Wonder dog JaJa navigating floodwaters from the Big Muddy River near Carbondale as we survey the road I usually take home.