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In Midwest, 1,000 flood fighters work to hold back New Year's floods

Some 12.1 million Americans live in areas with active flood warnings, the National Weather Service said.

Jeff Roberson/AP
Homes are surrounded by floodwater in Pacific, Mo., Wednesday. A rare winter flood threatened nearly two dozen federal levees in Missouri and Illinois on Wednesday as rivers rose, prompting evacuations in several places.

With the Mississippi River and four other major US rivers building toward historic crests for a winter flood, some 1,000 US flood fighters have spread out across America's mighty river valleys to once again test the wherewithal of the world's grandest plumbing works: the Mississippi River and Tributaries project.

El Niño conditions in the Pacific have created an unusually wet and warm mess across the nation's midsection and into the Deep South. The gauge at St. Louis is clawing up toward 42 feet, its third-highest in recorded history. Parts of St. Louis are already underwater as the confluence of the Missouri River and the Mississippi roil the city's shipping front and close the St. Louis harbor. The waters are expected to crest in Missouri on New Year’s Day.

Engineers are holding back water from Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley in Kentucky to slow the Ohio River's flow into the Mississippi. Downstream, New Orleans is bracing to battle floodwaters that could take up to another three weeks to fully crest, given that 46 upstream gauges are already at full flood.

Already, hundreds of homes and businesses have been flooded or evacuated in Missouri and Illinois, displacing thousands of people. Twenty-one people have lost their lives. Some 12.1 million Americans live in areas with active flood warnings, the National Weather Service said. 

"Everybody is at battle stations," says Bob Anderson, a spokesman for the Mississippi River Commission in Vicksburg, Miss.

Managed by the Mississippi River Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers, the $13 billion Mississippi River and Tributaries project aims to regulate river flow from where the Ohio and Mississippi swirl into each other at Cairo, Ill., (pronounced "kay-ro") all the way to New Orleans. The MR&T is a complex series of backwaters, levees, spillways, floodways, fuse plugs, and control structures, like the one at Old River Control Complex, which have been known to tremble as they try to keep the river in its designated place.

The project has turned “the third largest watershed on the planet into the greatest river basin in the world,” George Grugett, executive vice president of the Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association, wrote in 2012. Yet uncertainty in some cases is just a stray thunderstorm away.

This week’s work is guided by a Corps humbled by the failures of its New Orleans levees in 2005, but also bolstered by its subsequent success in 2011 at keeping one of the biggest floods in US history from becoming much of a national news story. 

"For a long time, they called it flood control, but since Katrina the wiser heads said you can't really control the flood, you can only manage it," says Mr. Anderson.

The May 2011 floods came after weeks of heavy rains and spring thunderstorms across the country's major midsection river valleys. The river reached a crest of 61 feet, just below the record 1927 floods that killed perhaps as many as 1,000 Americans. The Corps reached a tough decision to blow a crevasse at Birds Point at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to relieve the pressure, but at the cost of homes, businesses, and croplands that line the floodway.

In 2011, "flood fight teams composed of federal, state and local resources ... battled unusually frigid temperatures, high winds, and stinging rain [to] ... hold back the onslaught of the river," Corps historian Charles Camillo writes in his 2012 book, "Divine Providence." "Nearly all of the land that flooded during the 2011 flood was located between the levees or other unprotected areas, or within designated floodways and backwater areas. Approximately 950,000 households, along with major industrial, commercial and retail facilities that stood in harm's way, escaped the flood undamaged." 

Officials estimate that, without the MR&T project, the United States would have suffered $7.3 billion in crop losses and $110 billion in other damages from the 2011 flood. By last count, hurricane Katrina, which brought a major American city to its knees, wrought $108 billion in damages.

This flood is different, and slightly smaller, but will test $800 million worth of levee repairs from the 2011 event. So far, the closing of the dams at Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake have eased the pressure. And forecasters predict a drying-out period ahead, though potentially icy conditions could make cleanup difficult.

But the saturated midsection of the country, which during 1993 floods turned parts of Missouri and Illinois into a sixth great lake, will still pose grave dangers downstream.

"All of the runoff that has been generated from 10 to 15 inches of rainfall that we've had in parts of the Arkansas, Red, and Mississippi Valleys has already hit the ground, is moving into streams, and working its way to Cairo, Ill.," says Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center in Vicksburg, Miss. "Because the Mississippi River is leveed very heavily all the way downstream from Cairo means that we have a fairly good idea of what crests are going to be downstream all the way to New Orleans.

"The levee systems and floodways are designed to handle these kinds of flows, but we certainly don't like the high levels that we're seeing so early in the season," he adds. "It's very unusual to be having the magnitude of flooding that we're having now."

The water is headed for some of the most densely built industrial riverfronts in the country. Grain prices have begun to sharply rise as boats struggle to maneuver the boiling river.

“We're dealing with extremely high waters, so the Coast Guard is recommending (vessels) proceed with extreme caution,” Coast Guard public affairs officer Christopher Pince told Reuters.

As floodwaters inch up in parts of Missouri and Illinois, flood fighters are already looking downstream, even as they’re deploying some 1 million sandbags to shore up defenses. The Mississippi is now expected to crest in New Orleans in mid-January. The Army Corps of Engineers is weighing whether they’ll have to open the Bonnet Carre floodway, which would divert some of the floodwaters into Lake Pontchartrain, potentially damaging the lake’s fishery.

There’s “a lot of moving parts working together to come up with the best forecast to mitigate any flood issues that we'll have as this crest starts to make its way downriver,” says Mr. Graschel.

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