Trouble In The Big Muddy

July 2, 2008 at 1:22 pm 4 comments

Lessons should have been learned after 1000 levees failed in 1993. They weren’t.

Our July Newsletter featured the following article by Adam Pitluk which he wrote exclusively for, we feel it is a worthy topic of discussion for the civil engineering community so we thought it would be appropriate to publish it on our blog as well.  Enjoy.

By Adam Pitluk, Author & Journalist

TIME magazine contributor Adam Pitluk is the author of “Damned To Eternity” and “Standing Eight.” You can read his blogs “When the Levees Break” on CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s Blog Site,  watch his MSNBC interview on the Inherent Flaws of the Midwestern Levees on his website and see him on ABC’s 20/20 in July.  The press is taking note of Adams’s May 2008 prediction of the now watched levee failures of the Midwest.  He’s written for a host of national publications, including AIR & SPACE and POPULAR MECHANICS. Adam has a bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Missouri, and a master of science from Columbia University. You can read his flood predictions for this season on his website,

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with maintaining levees up and down the Mississippi River, as well as other major waterways across the country. Indeed, the Corps has historically built earthen and cement dams to shore up rivers around big cities like St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans, but a misconception is that the Corps single-handedly built the American levee system.

In fact, local interests in the late 1800s and early 1900s originally constructed most levees along the Mississippi River. Initially, farmers teamed up and hauled wheelbarrows of clay and compacted sand along the banks of the river to secure their land and crops from an otherwise surging offshoot. Over time, the Corps has made minor improvements on these levees, but they have never dug up the original, tenuous foundations. In this region of the country, the Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps was the overseeing body for dam improvements. But they weren’t always the first to know of trouble spots. For that, they relied on the local overseers.

As a result, levees like the one in West Quincy, Missouri, which broke during the Great Floods of 1993 and which is threatening to break right now, have not been properly updated to coincide with the creation of the Mississippi River’s lock and dam system of canals.

The West Quincy levee was originally 17 feet tall at the turn of the 20th century, and it remained that way through 1917, when the Fabius River Drainage District (the overseers of that levee) was formed. In 1936, Congress passed the Flood Control Act, which put levees under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers: They could effectively be called upon to help make improvements in some of the more rural areas of American ecosystems. Between 1960 and 1963, the Fabius district, along with the Army Corps of Engineers and $1.61 million of federal money, commissioned hydraulic pumps to siphon sand from the river and deposit it alongside the West Quincy levee. The dam was thus built up.

By July 1993, it stood approximately 24 feet high, and that 24 feet of earthen clay and sand was all that separated the Mississippi River from more than 14,000 acres of farmland in the Fabius River Drainage District. During the floods of 1973, the Mississippi crested at 26 feet and overtopped the levee, which resulted in the destruction of thousands of acres of farmland and some businesses, like the Knapheide Manufacturing Company.

Earlier in July 1993, Norman Haerr, the commissioner of the Fabius district, was informed by the Corps that this time around, the Mississippi River might rise all the way up to 30 feet of water. The Fabius district was not necessarily up the creek: They could build their levee up to 30 feet, but in so doing, they’d neglect a free board. The Corps highly recommends in their maintenance handbook that levees have a two-foot buffer zone, or free board, between the top of the river and the top of a levee. This safety zone allows a little leverage if the river rises higher than originally calculated, and it also contributes to the structural integrity of the dike. So Haerr and fellow farmer Bob Hoffmeister called in the bulldozers.

A fleet of bulldozers maneuvered to the back of the levee—the side furthest from the river—and actually pushed sand from the base of the levee up the side and toward the top. It worked. The more the bulldozers pushed, the more the levee grew from the ground. Just as the 30-foot target was being met, the Corps came back to Haerr and gave him the one piece of news he absolutely dreaded. They said that the rains up north in Iowa were heavier and more virulent than once expected. As such, Haerr and company could expect 32.5 feet of water.

Haerr received the news with suppressed panic. He wanted to ask the engineer if this was some kind of joke, but the messenger’s face was expressionless—as expressionless as the shocked face that looked back. There was nothing Haerr could do except continue to bulldoze the levee even higher.

The machines pushed and pushed, and an industrial black tarp was thrown over the sheer-faced gigantic mound to keep the sand from eroding. In the areas that didn’t have enough sand at the top, Haerr had volunteers stack sandbags.

Haerr’s strained eyes and clinched fists eased a bit come the morning of July 13, when the river seemed to be holding steady at 29 feet while the levee stood just over 30 feet in the air. The bulldozers continued to push. It is because of the thinning of the levee walls—and not because of sabotage—that the West Quincy levee failed on July 16, 1993.

Fast forward to June 2008: The Fabius River Drainage District started bulldozing their levees again. If this levee fails in 2008, you know who’s to blame.


Entry filed under: Civil Engineering Issues, Failing US Infrastructure, US Infrastructure. Tags: , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. USACE Engineer  |  August 1, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    I am and engineer with the USACE. I flood fought this last flood in June. I am so sick and tired of the Corps getting blamed for levee failures that we had nothing to do with. As mentioned, many of these levees were built by local farmers using ag equipment. We get involved when it floods because to do nothing at all would be worse. However, we are guilty by association. Just because I am out there in my red shirt flood fighting a particular levee, that levee automatically becomes a “federal levee”. That is bull.

    If the public wants the levees to be built to Corps standards, pony up and get the funding set up. If the public doesn’t want the levees there, then talk to the local land owners who’s fields will flood and crops will be wiped out.

    The Corps doesn’t tell the local landowners what to do. We don’t own their land. We don’t own the floodplain. We simply show up and help in a time of need. And for that we are blamed for the bad stuff the happens.

    If we are to blame for anything, it’s for not standing up for ourselves and fighting the misconceptions!

    USACE Engineer

  • 2. Eugene Manderky  |  July 15, 2008 at 3:31 am

    Davis: I read that book. And I read this one. You need to read this one. It’s better. Much better.

  • 3. David Perrings, PE  |  July 11, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    The levee issue comes up every few years or so shortly after Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall and broke into pieces.
    But after the mess is cleaned up all is quiet, except for the people directly effected.

    There is a book by John M. Barry, titled “The Rising Tide, The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America that gives a very good accounting of the whole (hole) levee issue along with the history of Civil Engineering, Charles Eads, The Army Corp, race relations and the upper crust of New Orleans. I recommend reading the book very highly.

    As long as we continue to use a band-aid approach to the levees we are going to continue to need more band-aids in the future.

    David Perrings, PE

  • 4. MJ  |  July 2, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    Great read. And very true


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