Opinion | 03/24/2010
by David M. Oates, President
Oates Associates, Inc
Recent news articles and letters have criticized Metro East officials for questioning the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood mapping process. In my opinion, some of that coverage ignores important facts and places much more faith in federal bureaucrats from outside of the region than in our local elected and appointed officials.
Questioning the FEMA process is not "quibbling." It is a serious issue when 150,000 residents, who are already paying increased sales tax to fix the levees, are also asked to pay even more to insure against those same levees' failure. That the cost of insurance for residents and businesses in the region will likely exceed the cost of the levee repair is even more serious.
First, local officials aren't delaying the levee fix. As soon as the problem was brought to their attention, the three counties formed a new flood prevention district and implemented a tax to fund the repairs. Those officials continue to work for more funding, now that the Corps of Engineers has increased their estimate of the repair cost.
Second, while the Corps is not technically responsible for the levees, they participated in the original design and construction years ago, and have been involved in the evaluation of the levee condition since. The Corps also declined to "re-certify" the levees (this is where the locals are questioning the process) even though they are still working on studies to tell the levee owners what the problems are and what it will cost to fix them.
Third, some comments have misstated the flood risk that is shown in the FEMA studies. The record flood elevation occurred in 1993, the only flood over FEMA's 100-year level. No other flood -- 1973, 1995, or 2008 -- has exceeded the 100-year level. None of the floods, including FEMA's 500-year level, are expected to overtop the levees.
The problem is not water going over the levees, but water seeping under the levees. While a serious problem, the ability to predict the magnitude of the under-seepage problem and how to fix it is much more theoretical than simply addressing higher flood elevations. Computer modeling methods and required factors of safety have changed since the levees were built and continue to be evaluated. That a levee designed fifty years ago doesn't meet new standards isn't the fault of the local levee districts -- nor a reason to assume the levees will fail.
Finally, some statements about the causes for increased flood risk (such as on-going engineering of the Mississippi River" and "secondary contributions from the levees") question the wisdom of development in this area. That opinion might be valid in areas where new development has taken place in previously unprotected flood plains, but in the Metro East, federally funded and built levees have been in place for fifty years. Those residents and businesses in the area should not be expected to pay twice for continued flood protection -- once for a tax to fix the levees and again for insurance.
David Oates is a principal of Oates Associates, Inc., a Collinsville, IL based engineering firm. Oates has over thirty years experience in drainage and public works projects. Oates Associates has evaluated the new FEMA flood maps for a number of communities and is currently part of a team preparing a Stormwater Master Plan for Madison County. Oates is also Past President of the Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois and a member of their levee task force. He has also served as State President for the American Council of Engineering Companies/ Illinois and the Illinois Society of Professional Engineers.