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Call for Change Ignored, Levees Remain Patchy
CANTON, Mo. - The levees along the Mississippi River offer a patchwork of unpredictable protections. Some are tall and earthen, others aging and sandy, and many along its tributaries uncataloged by federal officials.
The levees are owned and maintained by all sorts of towns, agencies, even individual farmers, making the work in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri last week of gaming the flood - calculating where water levels would exceed the capacity of the protective walls - especially agonizing.
After the last devastating flood in the Midwest 15 years ago, a committee of experts commissioned by the Clinton administration issued a 272-page report that recommended a more uniform approach to managing rising waters along the Mississippi and its tributaries, including giving the principal responsibility for many of the levees to the Army Corps of Engineers.
But the committee chairman, Gerald E. Galloway Jr., a former brigadier general with the Corps of Engineers, said in an interview that few broad changes were made once the floodwaters of 1993 receded and were forgotten.
"We told them there were going to be more floods like this," said Dr. Galloway, now an engineering professor at the University of Maryland. "Everybody likes to go out and shake hands on the levee now and offer sandbags, but that's not helpful. This shouldn't have happened in the first place."
While the committee's recommendations certainly would not have prevented the Mississippi and its tributaries from rising to catastrophic levels, Dr. Galloway said they could have lessened the sense of helplessness and limited some of the damage.
Among the committee suggestions that Dr. Galloway said were largely overlooked: a more systematic approach to what the 1994 report described as "a loose aggregation of federal, local and individual levees and reservoirs" on these Midwestern rivers in which, that report said, "many levees are poorly sited and will fail again in the future."
And after Hurricane Katrina destroyed levees protecting New Orleans in 2005, Congress passed a bill setting up a program to inventory and inspect levees, but it failed to provide enough money to carry that out, Dr. Galloway said. "We don't even know where some of these levees are," he said.
All along the bloated Mississippi last week, the odd nature of this collection of levees - autonomous but yet connected - played out in towns like this one, Canton, about 125 miles northwest of St. Louis.
Walking along the top of Canton's earthen levee on Wednesday, water up to its brim, Richard Dodd barked instructions into a walkie-talkie and scanned for leaks and bulges in it, the only thing left between the river and the heart of this city.
Mr. Dodd, an alderman, was worried, too, about the levees he could not see - along hundreds of miles, up and down the river and its tributaries. A break in one could spare other towns, he said, or send water rushing in unexpected directions, including here.
Canton's mayor, Joe Clark, looked across the river to Meyer, Ill., where one of more than 20 levees either broke or overflowed last week. "It would sure seem better to have this all under one jurisdiction," Mr. Clark said, "but that's just not the way it is." As it happened, the overflowed levee across the river from Canton may have been what spared his town from damage.
Water levels here had risen again by Saturday, but were predicted to peak over the weekend and then begin dropping. Officials were cautiously optimistic. "We're holding our own," Mr. Dodd said Saturday afternoon.
In just one stretch along the Mississippi, based on federal data available on Friday, at least 13 levees were overwhelmed by the river this past week, offering a window into the system.
Three of the levees where water broke through or came over the top were built and owned by local people, towns or agencies, and were not certified as meeting federal standards, records show. Four others that overflowed and then had holes break were built and maintained by towns or drainage district boards, but had been certified by federal authorities as meeting their standards.
The Army Corps of Engineers built or helped reconstruct the other six, though local authorities now own them and are responsible for their upkeep.
"There is a patchwork quilt of levee responsibility when it comes to this," said Butch Kinerney, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "There is no federal agency which oversees levees. That doesn't exist."
For more than a century, people near this river have been trying to hold it back. Levees rise from these banks and the banks of its tributaries in all heights and shapes, many built decades ago by people, towns, groups of farmers.
Made of sand, clay, dirt and, in some cases, unknown materials, some levees guard towns, others protect farm fields. There are long, elaborate walls, like one here known as the Sny that runs more than 50 miles down the river. Others, tiny private levees, particularly those on the smaller tributaries of the Mississippi, have long ago been forgotten, and the federal authorities acknowledge that they are uncertain where all of them are.
People in the Upper Midwest have been wrestling with the "hodgepodge" of levees, as one Missouri geologist describes the situation, for decades, even as officials in the 1920s designed a more standardized system of protection south of here, along the Mississippi downriver of Cairo, Ill., and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
After an enormous flood in 1927, the southern stretch of the river was deemed part of a project area, and ordered to have levees designed by the Corps of Engineers. "Those were good levees, all built to a single standard," said John M. Barry, who wrote "Rising Tide," a book about the 1927 flood.
But the flood had not devastated the Upper Mississippi region to the degree it had in the south, and the political atmosphere, given the enormous price of levee building, left those to the north out of the equation, Mr. Barry said. So people here kept building on their own.
In the 1960s and '70s, there were calls for improvements: In some cases, Corps officials built or rebuilt certain levees (including Canton's in the 1960s), then handed them back to the local authorities. Federal authorities also inspect and certify some levees as meeting corps standards, a designation that allows communities to receive subsidies if their levees fail.
But such certification is not mandatory for all levees. Of more than 200 known levees in this region alone, more than 100, many of them in the Mississippi's tributaries, have not been certified as meeting the federal standards; they may have poor construction, signs of stress, trees growing on them, animal burrows.
All of which has left an odd assortment of levees protecting these towns, even now.
"It's still sort of ad hoc," said Ron Fournier, of the Rock Island district of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Even as people here battled the rising waters last week, the disconnected nature of these levees played out in complicated ways.
All around, people tried to raise their levees just a little more, just enough, they hoped, to keep them above water. Atop the levees, they piled sandbags, stone, wood. Town to town, it seemed an arms-race-like battle to go higher. Here in Canton, carpenters spent days hammering a two-foot wooden frame addition to the top of their levee, then padded that with sandbags - tricks they learned from 1993.
But a topped-off levee in one town was not without effect on others along the river, some said.
"We always flood fight and raise levees during events like this with little or no coordination or regard for the impact it will have on people upstream or across the river," said Paul A. Osman of the Illinois Office of Water Resources. "When you raise a levee, that water has to go somewhere."
Many experts said it was impossible to know whether a comprehensive levee system might have changed things last week in the areas where water flowed over levees, in the endless corn and soybean fields near Meyer, Ill., or in the trailers and homes near Winfield, Mo. Many of the levees overflowed - as opposed to breaking up or splitting open first; they were simply overwhelmed by a huge amount of water. Some, along open lands, were always expected to overflow at such high water levels.
Still, Dr. Galloway said a broad, comprehensive flood management plan - the one presented 14 years ago - would have helped. "Some agricultural levees would still have overflowed," he said. "But you would substantially have reduced the damage."
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company