Levee dilemma puts villages between rock and hard place - Republic-Times | News

Levee dilemma puts villages between rock and hard place

By on October 10, 2012 at 10:47 am

Prairie du Rocher Mayor Ernie Doiron stands near a flood gate and the road it secures. (Alan Dooley photo)

New Athens and Prairie du Rocher are two communities that have been informed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that they may face decertification of levees currently protecting them from flooding. This the first of a two-part series looking into the matter.

On one hand, there is a “rock.” If levees are decertified, citizens will be required to purchase flood insurance at costs that will greatly increase monthly mortgage payments and costs to businesses as well as slowing building and development.

But there is a hard place, too.  To gain certification, the villages of New Athens and Prairie du Rocher must hire an engineering firm to inspect and analyze their levees and then prepare a report to send to FEMA to secure that status.

And for both communities, costs could run $1 million or higher. Dividing that figure by the number of citizens — approximately 2,000 in New Athens and 600 in Prairie du Rocher — would require a tax well above normal property tax costs for that issue alone.

Darned if you do. Darned if you don’t.

Property with a federally insured mortgage in a designated flood zone must be covered by flood insurance, known as National Flood Insurance Protection. Under the federal program, which spreads risk, it is offered by several insurance firms.  Flood insurance is not part of a homeowner’s policy that protects against other disasters like wind and fire.

Even if a home is paid for, if it is flooded, while federal emergency programs may help a family with expenses while they cannot live in their home, it will not replace a destroyed home.

To be accredited by FEMA, a levee must first be adjudged to provide what is called a “100-year” level of protection.  This is a measure both of the elevation of the top of the levee and its strength to resist flood waters.

While that has not changed, the criteria by which levees are judged for accreditation has unarguably crept higher in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it wrought on New Orleans in 2003.

Levees may be built with federal supervision or by private groups, such as levee districts.  The levee at New Athens was built under federal supervision, while Prairie du Rocher’s was constructed by its local  levee district.

Federal levees, and those subsequently accepted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  are inspected annually. The Corps also conducts periodic inspections that go into considerably more depth every five years. Three grades can result: acceptable, minimally acceptable or unacceptable.

The inspections look at maintenance and operation of parts of the flood risk reduction system, including pumps, gravity drains, closure structures and relief wells. They even evaluate vegetation on the levees.  Tree roots can damage or weaken a levee.

Acceptable levees are rare. They have no identifiable defects or problems. Minimally acceptable levees are the norm, and are generally in good shape and being well-operated, but may require replacement or repair to certain features. Unacceptable levees are in bad shape or disrepair, or no longer maintained.

While federal assistance is available to repair acceptable and minimally acceptable levees damaged by floods, unacceptable levees are not.

Prairie du Rocher

The levee at Prairie du Rocher is what is termed a 100-year levee. It protects that small but historic and quaint village of some 600 people from the nearby Mississippi River.

Prairie du Rocher has been protected by its levee for many years. The Mississippi is an extremely dynamic river, whose elevation from lowest to highest marks has varied over a 55-foot range in recorded history in the St. Louis area.

The original levee was once designed only to counter a 50-year flood, according to Mayor Ernie Doiron.

“As such, we had considerable restrictions on development and building, and flood insurance was very, very expensive,” he said.
Decertification of the community’s levee would bring that problem back.

“We don’t want to go there again,” Doiron emphasized.

In 1995, Mayor Doiron explained, the community embarked on a project to raise the levee to 100-year elevation.

This does not mean that if a community was threatened by a flood of a given height, it will be 100 years before that height will occur again. It is a statistical measure indicating there is a one percent chance a flood will overtop that levee in each and every year.

The project to raise the levee surrounding Prairie du Rocher, connecting to the bluff on both ends, ran from 1995 to 2004, Doiron explained.

“We knew we needed to raise our levee,” he said, “but coming up with the necessary funds was tough. The estimates came in at $3.1 million. Until we learned that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources had available funds, we were  about a million dollars short.”

With that state help, the village was able to raise its levee and the system became what is known as a provisionally accredited levee — and flood insurance costs were greatly reduced.

“We don’t want to go back there again — to a status where our levee is not judged to provide the protection to stave off a huge jump in insurance costs,” Doiron stressed.

Both New Athens and Prairie du Rocher leaders met with FEMA officials and the Army Corps of Engineers in early September.  FEMA said then that it was starting the process to decertify their levees.

“Neither federal agency brought any money to the table,” Doiron said. “We are continuing to work hard on our levee. For example, we are currently working to replace 11 small gravity drains — drains that allow rain inland to run into the river when there isn’t a flood. And I am absolutely determined to gain the necessary accreditation by whatever means necessary.”

The second part of this story, to run next week, will focus on the situation in New Athens, as well as flood insurance and decertification.


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.