Midwest Levees Reportedly Working as Planned

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The city of New Orleans flooded after Hurricane Katrina, in part because some of the levees protecting the city failed. In recent weeks, there have been reports about levees breaking in Iowa and Missouri. But initial reports are that most of those levees performed as they were supposed to.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, New Orleans flooded as the city's levees failed. An investigation later uncovered serious design flaws. In the past weeks, levees have again been under stress, this time in the Midwest along the Mississippi River. But initial reports indicate that unlike in New Orleans, most of these levees performed as they were supposed to. NPR's David Kestenbaum has more.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Failure is a touchy word for engineers. It means someone screwed up, something went wrong. Alan Dooley with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the St. Louis district gives this example.

Mr. ALAN DOOLEY (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers): If you built a levee 10 feet high and the water was six feet high and it breached, it broke, and the water flowed through, that's a failure.

KESTENBAUM: But a 10-foot-high levee with 12 feet of water, two feet over the top…

Mr. DOOLEY: …is not a failure.

KESTENBAUM: The wall just wasn't designed to take it. For whatever reason, someone took a calculated risk and the levee was not built high enough for the flood. The St. Louis district includes 200 miles of levees along the Mississippi. Dooley has a map of all confirmed levee breaks, and so far, they've all given way after water came pouring over the top.

Mr. DOOLEY: They did their job. They served well. And after they were saturated normally from both sides or eroded by water tumbling down the back side, then they breached.

KESTENBAUM: So how many failures in there?

Mr. DOOLEY: Again, all overtoppings. They're breached after they were overtopped, and that's not a failure.

KESTENBAUM: So zero failures?

Mr. DOOLEY: Zero failures.

KESTENBAUM: The emergency management folks with the state of Illinois across the river also had no reports of levees along the Mississippi failing. But this was on Monday, and late that night, a levee in the city of St. Charles gave way, flooding a soccer park and some fields. And sometimes it's hard to tell when a break is a failure.

Lou Amighetti is a public affairs officer with the Missouri State Water Patrol. He thought it was a failure.

Was the water over the top of this levee or not?

Mr. LOU AMIGHETTI (Public Affairs Officer, Missouri State Water Patrol): No. I think this one failed simply because the water was seeping through parts of the levee. Essentially, the water could not be held anymore, and it just forced a hole in the wall. Once the hole started, it basically multiplied into an enormous break.

KESTENBAUM: Amighetti says he's not a levee expert, so I called Alan Dooley back with the Army Corps, who again said no, not a failure. Eyewitnesses saw water going over the top.

Mr. DOOLEY: We had people in the field, and one of them reported that he heard water going over and he, you know, checked behind him. And he decided once the water was going over, it was time to move away. After that overtopping, the levee did breach.

KESTENBAUM: An assistant fire chief in the area gave a similar account.

Some levees are showing strains, though. In places, the water is worming its way underneath the barriers.

Staff Sergeant MATTHEW CROUNTS(ph) (Missouri Army National Guard): My name's Matthew Crounts, a staff sergeant in the Missouri Army National Guard.

KESTENBAUM: Crounts was walking up and down a flood wall in Hannibal, Missouri, this past week watching for trouble. The wall is over 30 feet high, behind it, tons and tons of Mississippi water.

Sgt. CROUNTS: Yeah, watch your step. It's kind of muddy, kind of wet.

KESTENBAUM: He showed our reporter Carrie Kahn a pool of water in the ground.

Sgt. CROUNTS: See how it bubbles up? We've just got to kind of watch it. If there's a lot of sediment coming, that's all the sand or dirt or whatever that's pushing out from the levee. So…

CARRIE KAHN: So this is in the middle of the street at the actual bottom of the levee?

Sgt. CROUNTS: Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am, it is.

KAHN: This is kind of ominous.

Sgt. CROUNTS: Yeah. Yes, it can be.

KESTENBAUM: So have any levees failed during these floods, broken before the water got to the top? We checked upriver in Iowa, where the flooding began. An Army Corps spokesman there said he did know of two genuine failures: one in a town named Keithsburg, another in the Birdland levee in Des Moines. Rick Clark is the city official for Des Moines overseeing the flood response who confirmed, yes, it had actually failed.

Mr. RICK CLARK (City Official, Des Moines, Iowa): It was basically an old levee, constructed back in the '50s, and it was just weak. And it wasn't really built to the standard that it needed to be.

KESTENBAUM: Before the flood, the city had been working with the Army Corps to design something better. Clark said he was surprised to hear there weren't more genuine failures. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says there may be others along tributaries or streams, but there are miles and miles of those levees, and right now no one is keeping track.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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