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Mississippi Flooding: Had We Used the American System...

June 22, 2008 (EIRNS)—The devastating 2008 record flooding of the Upper Mississippi River basin—one of the world's most productive agricultural regions, and one that the world depends on—could have been a lot less severe had the federal government followed its own recommendations.

After the then-record flood of 1993, the Clinton Administration commissioned a team of experts to make recommendations on how to avert future havoc from flooding. The team's 272-page report is now part of the flood debris that overtopped and burst through ill-maintained levees all along the Upper Mississippi.

After Katrina in 2005, Congress passed a bill to at least inventory and inspect the river system's levees. Just one problem: It neglected to provide enough money to implement the program.

Levees along the Upper Mississippi are owned and controlled by a motley aggregation of organizations: the federal government, local governments, private organizations, individuals. They are not held to uniform standards. "There is a patchwork quilt of levee responsibility, when it comes to this," FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney told the June 22 New York Times. "There is no federal agency that oversees levees. That doesn't exist."

Gerald E. Galloway, Jr., the former Brigadier General with the Army Corps of Engineers who chaired the commission which issued the report following the 1993 flood, told the Times, "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." Galloway's report emphasized the "need for structural flood control measures like levees, especially for urban communities and infrastructure."

Following the Great Flood of 1927, which hit the Lower Mississippi hardest, extensive work under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers was done on the Mississippi downriver from St. Louis. The work above St. Louis—the building of dams, levees, and related infrastructure—was no where near as extensive. Still, John M. Barry, the author of Rising Tide: The Great Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, reported to NPR this morning that those Upper Mississippi levees that were built in the 1930s have withstood the 2008 flood. It has been primarily those commissioned in the Reagan era, and built in the 1990s, that have failed.

Barry noted that other nations laugh at what the United States passes off as adequate flood control measures. Holland, for example, builds river flood control systems to withstand 250- to 1,000-year floods, or greater. In the U.S., most levees aren't even expected to survive a 100-year flood.