May 17, 2011


Count U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack among those who believe the Birds Point levee should be rebuilt. Last week Vilsack sent a letter to Secretary of the Army John McHugh urging him to commit to rebuilding the levee in Missouri as soon as conditions allow.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used dynamite to blast open the levee in three locations on May 2 to relieve flooding in Cairo, IL. As a result, about 200 square miles of fertile farmland was flooded, and more than 200 people were forced to evacuate approximately 90 homes. The flooding also presumably discharged stored agricultural chemicals, petroleum products and LP-propane gas into the environment.

As yet, McHugh and the Army Corps of Engineers has not committed to rebuilding the levee. In the letter, Vilsack asked the Corps of Engineers to make a public commitment, saying, “The more quickly the levee can be rebuilt, the sooner our farmers can ranchers can be back in their homes, back in their fields and back on their feet.”

Rebuilding the levee, however, will not happen without opposition. Last week three Southern Illinois University professors wrote to President Obama urging that the levees not be rebuilt, and that the area be “left open to the river and allowed to be inundated regularly.”

That idea swiftly met criticism from Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst, who believes the new wetland created by such a decision would result in a giant mosquito hatchery. “It’s imperative that we drown this foolish idea in its infancy. The levees must be repaired as soon as it dries enough for dirt to be moved.”

The intentional breach of the Birds Point levee has quickly become a controversial issue, drawing comments from national politicians. Last week Vice President Joe Biden visited St. Louis touring destruction left by last month’s storms. He praised the Corps of Engineers’ decision to breach the levee.

“As bad as it is, and it is bad, it is evidence that the Corps of Engineers has come up with a method along the Mississippi to be able to mitigate some of the significant damage that otherwise would have occurred,” Biden said. “It’s a hard thing, and it’s just evidence of the fact that there is a need for something larger.”

Those comments outraged U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who represents Southeast Missouri where the Birds Point levee is located.

“I believe it was an ignorant comment in the literal meaning of the word,” Emerson said. “His comments were ignorant and uninformed. It shows a total lack of understanding.”

Rural Missourians are outraged about the Birds Point levee breach because it is estimated the agricultural economy lost $65 million due to the flooding. Emerson noted that, so far, there has been no public indication by Biden or the corps that the federal government will provide assistance to farmers and other residents for flood recovery.

In a news release, Emerson’s office says “there is no evidence to suggest that any reduction in Mississippi River flood stages at Birds Point last week will lead to a reduction in damage as the crest moves downstream.”

Officials say the breach did reduce river levels upstream. Before the breach, On May 2, the Ohio River at Cairo peaked at 61.72 feet, a record. The river was at 56.49 feet at 4 p.m. on May 12.