Floods engulf archaic levee system
The Midwest's patchwork of levees wasn't adequately monitored or maintained.
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Numerous things can cause a levee to fail, say experts: The wrong material may have been used, a channel could have been created by a rotting log, or the foundation may fail due to unstable ground. Even putting sandbags atop a levee to increase its height – as dozens of riverside communities are doing this week – can weaken a levee, as people and bags add strain and create weak spots. Once a levee has been overtopped, breaching is fairly common, as the rushing water washes away the backside.Skip to next paragraph
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"There will be a lot of repairs required as a result of this," says Gerry Galloway, a retired brigadier general with the US Army and an engineering professor at the University of Maryland, who led a widely acclaimed study of the 1993 floods. "The challenge is to get the levees back before the next flood season."
In the aftermath of the 1993 floods, the Corps repaired 23 miles worth of levee breaks, says Ron Fournier, a spokesperson for the Corp's Rock Island District. But the levees remain pretty much the same. "It's repaired, but it's not a systemic system that manages flood control, it's a patchwork of different systems," he says, noting that significantly improving the system could be costly.
Several lessons and recommendations emerged from the 1993 floods, but few have been acted upon, says Mr. Galloway.
One of the key lessons: that the loose amalgam of federal and non-federal levees wasn't sufficiently monitored or maintained. No one knows how many levees exist or what their condition is, and most are turned over to local communities after being built.
Galloway recommended that the government develop an inventory and inspection system for levees similar to the one it created for dams in the 1970s. Congress finally agreed after Katrina to start such a program, but lawmakers have yet to appropriate sufficient money, Galloway says.
"We also indicated that critical infrastructure" – hospitals, nursing homes, fire and police departments – "was not supposed to be in the flood plain," says Galloway. "But we've continuously ignored that."
One community did decide to move the entire town to higher ground after the 1993 floods. This week, residents of Valmeyer, Ill., are looking down at the raging river from the bluffs they now sit atop, instead of from the plain where their town was largely washed away 15 years ago.
Such an approach is what a some advocates would like to see more of. Any structural system like levees is always going to be inadequate, say some environmentalists and engineers, and it interferes with the river's natural ability to deal with flooding by overflowing into wetlands and floodplains.
"This type of structural work creates a false sense of security for those relying on it to protect them from these waters," says Erich Pica, director of domestic programs for Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that wants federal money used to help move people out of the 100-year flood plain and advocates denying insurance for those who insist on living there.
"We need to face the reality that these floods are going to occur, and maybe the best solution is to move out of the way instead of trying to contain Mother Nature," he says.