Different river, similar levee dilemma for New Athens - Republic-Times | News

Different river, similar levee dilemma for New Athens

By on October 16, 2012 at 9:58 pm

New Athens Mayor Gary Kearns surveys his community’s levee near the Kaskaskia River, which is threatened with deaccreditation by FEMA. (Alan Dooley photo)

New Athens and Prairie du Rocher are two communities which have been informed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that they may face deaccreditation of levees currently protecting them from flooding. This is the second article in a two-part series. Last weeks focus was on Prairie du Rocher; New Athens is the focus this week.

Mayor Gary Kearns and New Athens’ 2,000 citizens face a similar challenge to one in Prairie du Rocher. But it is different in many ways.

“Our levee is 7,000 feet long. It is on the Kaskaskia River — not the Mississippi,” Kearns said.

The “Kaski,” as it is known locally, has its flow controlled by two impounded lakes and dams. It doesn’t fluctuate as much as the Mississippi.

“In fact, because it is on the Kaskaskia River, its height protects from a 500-year level flood,” he added.

Kearns said his village’s levee has been inspected in the past by the Corps of Engineers and adjudged to be acceptable.  That’s a rare grade.

“Thankfully, we don’t have a lot of the elements like gravity drains,” he said. “And it is on a straight stretch, so we don’t have the added energy threatening it that is seen in bends.”

The most recent Corps inspection in 2010 identified the New Athens levee as minimally acceptable. This program identifies levees eligible for federal assistance to rehabilitate them if they are damaged by a flood.

While acknowledging that flood loads can damage levees over a period of time, Kearns noted the levee’s performance when faced by floods in 1993 and 1995.

“In fact, 1995 was higher for us than what we saw in 1993,” he said.  “We don’t have underseepage here — none of the sand boiling that is seen often on the inside of Mississippi River levees.  I was 10 years old when they built this levee. We have not been flooded since then.”

Even though New Athens has three times the number of taxable citizens than Prairie du Rocher to pay for the necessary engineering investigation and reports estimated to cost $1 million or more, it’s still a hefty sum.

“Listen. The costs need to be spread.  Three counties — Madison, St. Clair and Monroe — have banded together and gotten taxing authority to impose a quarter-cent sales tax on all of their citizens to pay for necessary improvements to their levees on 74 miles of the Mississippi River,” Kearns said. “It is for the future of the Metro East.

“And I’m pretty sure we are in the Metro East. In fact, the citizens of New Athens are subject to this tax and have provided about $60,000 since 2009 to fix levees in Brooklyn, East St. Louis, and so forth. We should receive similar consideration since we are paying, too.”

Kearns contends that his village has a “very good” levee.

“It has been well maintained, it is on a smaller and less violent river, and it has performed well and passed inspections time after time,” he said. “That should count for something.”

Insurance, deaccreditation

Flood insurance – which again, is not a part of standard homeowners policies that cover losses due to fire, wind and other disasters – has variable costs for the same amount of protection depending on location and levee status.

If a place of business or residence is in a higher area or is served by an accredited levee, it receives the lowest rate.  In fact, property doesn’t have to be near a river to make flood insurance a good way to reduce risks.  The percentage of property that is paved and has groomed lawns is increasing, and with it, so are run-off risks.

Property owners are well advised to assess how their surroundings, and changes to them, may contribute to possible flooding of their home or business. Such an event occurred as recently as last year along Kaskaskia Road south of Waterloo.

Obtaining flood insurance while a property is protected by an accredited levee can be a good decision. If the levee is subsequently deaccredited, the insurance costs are “grandfathered” at the old rate for two years.  Then they are limited in increases to what would be a standard rate for a low-to-medium risk area.  FEMA provides information on flood insurance online at www.fema.gov/national-flood-insurance-program.  Other information can be found at www.floodsmart.gov.

If a property owner fails to obtain flood insurance and their property is then re-mapped into a high threat area, they can obtain the insurance, or their mortgage holder will do so and bill them. But rates will be much higher.

If an owner owns property outright, with no mortgage, he or she can choose to live without insurance but will assuming all the risk if there is a flood.

The future of risks

Those who ignore the past may have to relive it.
A national program to review flood risk reduction is taking a more holistic approach to the issue of a safer and better protected public in the area of flood risks.

What do detailed engineering inspections and tests disclose about a levee and the ground it sits on?  What has past performance shown? How many times and for how long has a levee fended off floods?  How well?

What non-structural measures are in place?  Does a community or area have a good emergency response program?  Are their predetermined evacuation routes set?  Does a community have a reverse 911 notification system? Are local leaders testing their plans and educating the public – especially new citizens and those who may have grown complacent?

FEMA states on its website: “If you live in a high risk area (in a flood plain without an adequate levee system), your home is twice as likely to be damaged by a flood as by a fire.”

Costly challenges are upon New Athens and Prairie du Rocher.

Those of us who don’t live in either community are nonetheless involved, for they are our neighbors.

Alan Dooley

Alan is a photojournalist -- he both shoots pictures and writes for the R-T. A 31-year Navy vet, he has lived worldwide, but with his wife Sherry, calls a rambling house south of Waterloo home. Alan counts astronomy as a hobby and is fascinated by just about everything scientific.