June 17, 2008 in Nation/World

Engineers watch 27 levees

Eileen Sullivan Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Engineers monitor a breached levee last week on the Des Moines River. Levees on the Mississippi are in danger of overflowing Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – The federal government predicts that 27 levees could overflow along the Mississippi River if the weather forecast is on the mark and a massive sandbagging effort fails to raise the level of the levees, according to a map obtained Monday.

Officials are placing millions of sandbags on top of the levees along the river in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri to prevent overflowing. There is no way to predict whether these levees will break, said Ron Fournier, a spokesman with the Army Corps of Engineers in Iowa. “That’s a crystal ball that nobody has,” he said.

Levees in New Orleans broke during Hurricane Katrina, causing catastrophic flooding and killing at least 1,600 people in 2005.

Record-breaking storms and flooding across six states this month continue to force thousands of people to evacuate and seek shelter. Since June 6, there have been 22 deaths, 85 injuries and more than 26,000 power outages because of the storms and flooding, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Army Corps of Engineers looks at the latest weather forecasts and creates “battle maps” for engineers that show how many levees could overflow without what Fournier calls a “big flood fight effort.” The flood fight entails placing millions of sandbags on top of the levees to make them higher.

The information, which the Army Corps shares regularly with state and local officials, changes constantly. Bret Vorhees, a spokesman for the Iowa Emergency Management and Homeland Security agency, said his office relies on these updates. “The weather can be unpredictable. It’s a bit of an art with a science with their projections,” he said.

As of Monday evening, 27 levees have a potential of overflowing – 20 of those a “high potential” – according to the Army Corps. Six levees have overflowed in the past three days: two in Iowa and four in Missouri.

In most instances, overflowing is just problematic, says Larry Roth, the deputy executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.But because the current flooding is so rare – many are calling it a one-in-500-years flood – the entire levee system will be stressed.

Still, Roth said, if the federal government and local officials are able to get the sandbags in place and identify potential weak areas along the levees, “then there’s maybe a very good chance to provide flood protection for the people that live along the river.”

Some 251 miles of the Mississippi River have been closed. That doesn’t officially shut down the river, said U.S. Geological Survey national flood specialist Bob Holmes, but it effectively shuts down barge traffic.

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