MEMPHIS, TN - MAY 08: A home is surrounded by floodwater in the West Junction neighborhood May 8, 2011 in Memphis, Tennessee. Officials estimate about 1,300 homes are at risk of suffering dangerous flooding as the city braces for the …
Photographer: Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
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By TOM CHARLIER
Scripps Howard News Service
The federal levee system that prevented an estimated $62 billion in losses during Mississippi River flooding in May sustained a good bit of damage itself, Corps of Engineers officials say.
The corps estimates it'll take $1 billion to $2 billion to repair and rebuild the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, which stretches from Illinois to Louisiana and is the world's largest flood-control system. The work will include repairing some 1,000 sand boils, or seepage areas, and restoring the Missouri levees blown up by the corps to purposely inundate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.
"If we don't restore the system by the next flood season, all the damages that did not happen from the catastrophic flooding this year might happen," said Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, which oversees the corps' work on the river.
Congress is looking at ways to fund the levee work, with a House subcommittee already approving the use of $1 billion in untapped bailout funds from the Troubled Assets Recovery Program.
In addition to repairs, the corps might look at reengineering parts of the system.
During a recent Memphis visit, Walsh suggested that another floodway -- an area purposely inundated to relieve pressure on levees -- might be needed along with the four already in place.
"It's something that should be studied," Walsh said.
The corps' recovery process comes at time when the levee system is the subject of growing criticism from environmentalists. They say the historic flood of 2011 showed the folly of relying too much on levees to restrain the Mississippi.
The river needs to be freer to spread out, said Andrew Fahlund, senior vice president for conservation for the group American Rivers.
During the flood, "people gained an understanding that we can't just use all available land and wall off the river and hope for the best," he said.
Renée Victoria Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, cited the concern that a dead zone -- an area of low oxygen levels, caused mostly by agricultural runoff -- will develop in the Gulf of Mexico this summer.
Levees funnel water downriver faster, resulting in "one big flush" of contaminates in the Gulf of Mexico.
"What we do know is that we prevented $62 billion in damage during the catastrophic floods," Walsh said. "If we don't restore and reset the system in time for the next flood season, all the damages that did not happen during the catastrophe this year might happen."
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