[Marxism] Katrina redux

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jun 21 14:33:30 MDT 2008

NY Times, June 22, 2008
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 

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. 
"Someone needs to go out and count the levees and see what's wrong with them."

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.

In just one stretch along the Mississippi, based on federal data 
available on Friday, at least 13 levees were overwhelmed by the river 
this 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. There are places where, back when, Farmer Joe 
pushed up a bulldozer full of dirt and made his own levee."

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 some 250 
levees in this region alone, about 180, many of them in the 
Mississippi's tributaries, do not meet 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 this 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 sand bags — tricks they learned from 
1993. "We were green back then," confided Mr. Dodd, the alderman.

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 that 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."

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