The terms 50-year and 100-year flood have become obsolete.
We, Southern Illinoisans, are now dealing with annual flooding.
That’s really not hyperbole. After torrential rains doused Southern Illinois earlier this month, both the Big Muddy and the Mississippi rivers posted near-record crests. The Big Muddy crested at 40.5 feet, just below the record set in 2011. In the meantime, the Mississippi crested at 45.99 feet, the sixth highest level on record. The record was set last year.
During 2011, a levee in Missouri was purposely breached in order to save Cairo from devastating floods.
So, for those keeping score at home, that would be four 100-year floods in the past six years.
And, that’s just the west side of our region.
Let’s not forget the 2011 Ohio River flood that submerged most of Gallatin County.
What’s more, scientists tell us to expect the trend to continue.
The National Climate Assessment compiled in 2014 indicates precipitation has increased by about 20 percent in the past century. The rainfall that drenched the region this spring certainly verifies that data.
Flooding is normally a two-fold problem.
First, flash flooding occurs when drainage systems become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of rain that falls in a brief time. Since much of the region received 10 to 12 inches over a period of four days or less, some flash flooding is to be expected.
Fortunately, that water tends to subside quickly.
Then, there is wide-scale flooding of major rivers. With two of the largest rivers in the world, the Ohio and Mississippi, surrounding us, and the formidable Big Muddy running through the heart of Southern Illinois, the region is particularly vulnerable to devastating flooding.
Despite that reality, Southern Illinois finds itself virtually helpless against the elements.
Controlling a major river is a dicey proposition under the best of circumstances. But, the condition of our levees have exacerbated the situation.
The flood of 2016 breached the Len Small Levee in Alexander County, inundating thousands of acres. The flooding was so severe it scoured topsoil in some areas, and left several feet of sand in its wake in other spots. The mile-long breach in the levee was never repaired, resulting in about 20,000 acres being flooded again.
Residents of the area aren’t sure if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will ever repair the levee. The estimated cost to repair the levee is 200 times the yearly allotment the levee district receives in taxes. When you’re dealing with the federal government’s cost-benefit analysis, those figures don’t add up.
In the meantime, residents of Grand Tower in Jackson County have been working since the 2011 flood to shore up the Big Muddy and Mississippi levees.
Bottom line, repairs to the Len Small Levee are in limbo and officials seem to be treading water concerning the Grand Tower levees.
Compounding the problem, most of the levees in the region are rated unsatisfactory, making it impossible for residents to purchase flood insurance.
It’s an untenable situation.
There was a time when officials might have felt there was time to consider the best options — 100-year floods were a rarity. That’s no longer the case.
Flooding in the last six years has caused millions of dollars of damage. So far, the region has been lucky that residents haven’t been washed away completely.
Someone in the chain of command has to make tough decisions, and make them now.
The federal government has to decide whether to rebuild the levees, or to purchase the land adjacent to the rivers and re-establish the historic flood plain. The latter is something area residents don’t want to hear — neither do we.
On the other hand, given the severe nature of the annual flooding, the status quo is no long acceptable.