On a beautiful Sunday morning earlier this month, I went for a drive south through Randolph County to the historic community of Prairie du Rocher. From there I headed north on Bluff Road , driving through the picturesque country and fertile fields that are part of Illinois’ great American Bottoms, the area which flanks the east side of the Mississippi River. After stops in the historic German village of Maeystown and “old” Valmeyer in Monroe County, I continued heading north.
As I passed farmers baling alfalfa, saw the corn starting to emerge from the rich bottomland soil and caught spectacular views of the meandering Mississippi River, I couldn’t help but to think back to 1993, when the levees protecting these communities couldn’t withstand the raging Mississippi, resulting in “The Great Flood,” the highest recorded Mississippi River Flood in history. Everything I saw on an idyllic drive was, in 1993, buried under the muddy river waters. And when the floodwaters finally subsided, left behind was a trail of destruction and debris.
As I passed through Columbia into St. Clair County, I reflected on how this area was fortunate in 1993 to be protected by a different levee system than the communities to the south. Driving from Columbia, through St. Clair County on Route 3, through the great communities of Granite City, Wood River and Alton, the taller, much stronger levee, held back the Great Flood. I was thankful that our communities did not endure the same tragic event of our neighbors to the south.
Flooding along the Mississippi River in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties is an altogether too regular an occurrence, although, fortunately, not every flood is as bad as the situation was in 1993, and the levee protection system does its job.
In August 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, 14 years after the “Great Flood of 1993,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced its intention to de-credit the 74-mile levee system that protects the Metro East region. Although maintenance work was regularly completed on what was a still-effective levee system, a new higher standard by FEMA required after Katrina, resulted in a “reduced confidence” that the system could protect against a 100-year flood event.
FEMA’s action would have had dire consequences for our region’s economy and for our residents. The entire American Bottoms, an area of 174 square miles in Southwestern Illinois that is home to more than 156,000 people, 4,000 businesses and more than 56,000 jobs in the three counties, would be declared a Special Flood Hazard Area. Most home and business owners would be required to purchase flood insurance at substantially increased rates, which many could not afford. Homeowners without flood insurance would have been faced with foreclosure. Conservative estimates indicate flood insurance premiums would have annually increased by more than $50 million.
Recognizing the urgency of the situation, I joined with St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern and Monroe County Chairman Delbert Wittenauer to immediately address this emergency situation.
Our first action was to contact the federal government for help. Unfortunately, we were informed by government officials it would take until 2044 to upgrade our levee system using federal resources. Waiting until 2044 while our citizens’ safety and economic futures were at stake was unacceptable, so the decision was made for the three counties to undertake the levee rehabilitation project.
By June of 2008, less than one year from FEMA’s announcement of its intent to de-credit our levees, we, with the support of the Illinois General Assembly and the Madison, St. Clair and Monroe county boards, had formed the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District and put in place a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for the extensive project.
The Flood Prevention District Board of Directors was created to oversee the project. They are a bipartisan nine-person citizen board, appointed by the three counties who are cooperating in addressing this levee safety crisis.
A partnership was formed with the St. Louis Metro East Levee Issues Alliance, a coalition of business and civic organizations, community leaders who supported the project. FEMA’s efforts to de-credit the levees was avoided as a result of legislation initiated by former U.S. Congressman Jerry Costello in areas where an active effort is under way to upgrade existing levee systems.
The rehabilitation of the Metro East levee system was divided into two projects. The first project would permit the levees to maintain accreditation for 100-year flood protection and would be paid for with revenue generated by the special sales tax. The second project would be restoring the levees to the federal government standard of protection against a 500-year flood utilizing both local sales tax funds and federal funds.
I am proud to announce that construction work on the first 100-year project is near completion. Extensive work has been completed and as a result, the levees are much stronger and provide a higher level of protection for our residents. The second project, working in partnership with the Corps of Engineers, continues and will be completed over the next several years. All of the local 35 percent match funds are available to support the federal government’s 65 percent portion of the project.
The rehabilitation of the levees has not been without issues — in particular, our adamant demand that a project labor agreement be put into effect which specified that local labor is used on projects using sales tax paid by our residents.
Fortunately, this issue with the Corps of Engineers was resolved in a satisfactory manner. The Corps of Engineers will now follow a project labor agreement procurement process for its projects. Money generated locally for this important project will continue to benefit area workers and our economy. Despite some misleading information that is being circulated, no federal money has been lost on the project. The federal government will continue to appropriate their 65 percent share of the project until it is completed.
Working in a bipartisan nature, Mark Kern, Delbert Wittnauer, his successor Terry Liefer, and I acted expediently to do what is best for our residents and the businesses in our respective counties. We had bipartisan support from the Illinois General Assembly and the U.S. Congress. Flood insurance rates for our residents have not skyrocketed, we have the resources to finish the levee rehabilitation project and, most importantly, our residents and our businesses are better protected from the often calm, occasionally raging waters of the Mississippi River.
Alan Dunstan is chairman of the Madison County Board.