Birds Point myths, and shame on the New York Times

Late last night the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) blew a hole in the Birds Point levee breaking windows (according to NPR) in a building where people living in the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway had gathered to commiserate.

Press coverage is terrible.   

Today a New York Times article featured a couple whose house was flooded.  They had no insurance.  Because nobody would insure them.  Because they built a house in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

Times reporter A. G. Sulzberger  notes only that these folks were flooded after a big mean, unjust, government explosion.  And they worked hard.

I’m sad for those people, and for this sorry reporting that does nothing to fix what led to the the destruction of these homes and farms.

I have flooded neighbors, only one road to my house is open.  It’s terrible.   We’ll see lows in the 30’s tonight in southern Illinois; people are cold wet, scared, miserable, and desperate.

But the typical response of the press – to focus on human suffering and tragedy at the expense of analysis of the cause of it, and then move on after the flood – enables our flawed and unsustainable flood policy and gives us more of the same.

I was disappointed to hear NPR interview one of the farmers bringing a class action suit against the Federal Government over the opening of the Floodway.  With no mention of why the Corps opened it.

Here are problems, omissions, and misconceptions I see in our reporting and debate:

The COE arbitrarily decided, at the last minute or “in desperation” to destroy a perfectly good levee, and sacrifice hard working farmers’ homes and farmland to save a decrepit town full of poor Black people on the other side of the river.

The COE simply executed a plan according to law. An eighty-year-old plan any smart fifth-grader could understand. After the devastating 1927 flood, COE engineers developed a flood control system that was hotly and widely debated, and ultimately passed by Congress.  It included “floodways” to carry monster floods like this one on parts of the Lower Mississippi.  There was no other alternative; levees high enough to contain these floods can’t be built.  The floodways shunt water onto the floodplain and lower flood levels.  According to this plan, the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway was designed, built, and then flooded, using dynamite in a 1937 flood, and in 1983 the COE very nearly used it again.  Local government officials know about this history, and a homeowners who can’t get insurance or a mortgage, like those featured in the Times article yesterday certainly know why.

Ruben Bennett, 88 years old, featured in the Times article, lost a house when the floodway was first operated, according to plan, in 1937, and has now lost another one.  Uninsured.

More on this from a TNC scientist.  And link to documents clearly spelling out floodway operation.

The flooding of Missouri farmland to save Cairo was a “taking” of land by the Federal Government.

Huge federal subsidies built the levees on the Lower Mississippi.  The farmers inside these levees, who’ve had over eighty years of protection from flooding, have paid a tiny part of the total bill for the design, construction, and never ending maintenance of those levees.  The owners of the land in the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway were compensated with cash payments and “flowage easements” for exactly what happened last night.  There are some gray areas, it’s possible some of the landowners didn’t have flowage easements for farmland.  But any house built in that floodway was in grave danger, farmland can stand flooding, no house should have been built there.

 When the big federal levees were built, there was a great “giving” to the landowners who have enjoyed their protection for eight decades.

 It’s a stupid, unfair plan, somebody should have changed it.

When the plan was put into place in the early 1930's, Cairo was white-owed, had 15,000 people and was thriving.  Missouri Congressman Bill Emerson did try to change the plan, in 1987, and the COE did a big study, but found no economically feasible alternatives.   The farmers in the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway have had eighty years to challenge yesterday’s action, to buy back their flood easements, to move to high ground.  People living in the Floodway have had plenty of time to debate this.  It shouldn’t be done with 60 feet of water on the Cairo gage. 

Thanks to the Southeast Missourian for a link-rich page that includes source documents.

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