riparian rap

Birds Point flood coverage, blowing a fuse.

Today the receding Mississippi and Big Muddy River let me drive to work without a long detour.  My neighbors are filling demolition dumpsters with flood damaged stuff.

Flooding causes terrible human suffering and reporters rightly cover that.  Compelling stories, but terrible science and policy if we ignore the root causes.  The press has it wrong on Birds Point.

Typical phrases:  “Blowing the levee at Birds Point was necessary to save Cairo.  A last ditch desperate attempt.  Farmers were sacrificed for a decaying city.  Unfair.  Arbritrary.  Stomach churning.”

Desperate, always desperate.

Blowing up the Birds Point levee to open the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway was automatic, legal, and predetermined by an eighty-year-old plan. 

Nobody made a desperate decision.  The Army Corps played this drama, and it’s hard to blame them.  They blew up a levee in the middle of the night, a terribly dangerous and complex operation.

If I turn on my coffeemaker and toaster oven at the same time, I’ll blow a fuse.

Did the fuse make a desperate, arbitrary, last ditch attempt to save my house, at the expense of my coffee and toast, from burning by electrical overload?

No, it tripped at 15 amps, as designed.

The Birds Point – New Madrid floodway is a bought and paid for, debated to death, eighty year old fuse.  Beyond the politics, it is no more than that.

After the 1927 flood, the Army Corps and Congress realized it wasn’t possible to build levees along the Lower Mississippi River to contain the largest floods.  So the Corps designed and built in fuses, and Birds Point is one of these.

Missouri politicians have been lobbying on Birds Point for years.  Colleague Nicholas Pinter’s ongoing (unpublished, thanks) research shows that the trigger level for opening the Floodway has been raised from the original 1927 design level of 55 feet at Cairo to 60 feet.   The Floodway was opened at nearly 62 feet last week.

So local politicians have long been aware of the Floodway’s function, and lobbied to raise the the flood level at which it would be used.

Over eight decades, as they enjoyed highly subsidized protection from massive Federal levees.

If our press can’t understand this simple relationship, in the midst of this historic flood, what hope do we have for sustainable flood policy?

Thanks for links from Wired Mag’s Clastic Detritus,  and NASA’s Earth Observatory series.