Army Corps takes verbal beating over flooding

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October 27th, 2011

Omaha, NE – Public hearings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are continuing across the Midwest this week, after kicking off with Monday’s impassioned hearing in Omaha. Robyn Wisch reports on the hundreds of Missouri River flood victims who piled into a conference room to give the Corps a piece of their frustrated minds.

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After an hour-long presentation by Army Corps officials that detailed this spring’s unprecedented snowpack and rain levels and the series of events that led to the great flood of 2011 – a number of residents from up and down the river responded with anger, frustration and sarcasm.

Rulo, Nebraska bridges pictured on June 15, 2011. The Big Lake area, where Todd and Tyler Binder farm, is in the upper left. (Photo by U.S. Army Corps)

“I’m just a little slow, uneducated person from a farm in Iowa, and you guys have all this education and we’re in this mess,” said Iowa farmer Ron Jones, one of the first speaker’s of Monday night’s hearing. Jones criticized the Corps, saying it hasn’t done enough to react to this year’s flood and change procedures to ensure farmers along the Missouri don’t wind up in the same watery boat next year.

“And one thing I see right now is they’re not going to store anymore for next year than what they did this year,” Jones said, his voice rising. “So we’re going to have the same situation. I think that is absolutely asinine.”

Todd Binder, who lives on a farm in the Big Lake area in Missouri, near Rulo, Nebraska, made perhaps the most passionate petition of the evening. Directing his comments to Jody Farhat, Chief of Missouri River Basin Water Management, he said heatedly: “Maybe I should take and build a dam above your house, fill it 100% full, and take 22% out, and say there you go. How would that feel? Would you be comfortable with that?”

Brig. Gen. John McMahon (seen here at a Senate hearing on Oct. 18) told a room full of frustrated people that the Army Corps is "deeply sorry" for the damages caused by the 2011 Missouri flood, but that there's nothing he can do to change what's happened. (Photo courtesy U.S. Senate)

Binder agreed with Jones, as did most in the crowd, and criticized the Corps for its decision to evacuate just enough water from the system to return the dams along the Missouri to their pre-flood levels. That leaves the same amount of capacity in the dam system as there was before the flood. The Corps says that amount – 16.3 million acre feet of water – has been enough space almost every time.

“113 out of 114 years are okay for 16.3 million acre feet of water, is that correct?” Binder questioned Farhat. “113 out of 114 times I run a red light, I make it. See the logic? This comes down to common sense.”

But Corps officials defended their decisions. Brigadier General John McMahon is the commander of the northwestern division of the Army Corps. He said they had little choice but to restore the dams to their starting capacity.

“We needed to get the water out of the system and do that in time to let it drain off the flood plain,” McMahon said, “so those of you who are homeowners, and business owners and farmers, who have been inundated by these floodwaters, could get back into your homes and businesses and farms, and begin the same thing we’re doing, the inspections, the assessments, the repairs, so that we weren’t doing that in the cold dead of winter when everything was frozen and the damage would be exacerbated.”

McMahon acknowledged it was a difficult decision and leaves the system fragile and vulnerable. Tyler Binder (Todd Binder’s brother) said the uncertainty over what might happen in 2012, and the lack of a contingency plan, could leave him without any options. He said he applied for federal assistance to have sand piled on by the river removed from his farm, and he said he was told that assistance was a one-time offer.

“So if this happened again, I was on my own,” Binder said. “And then to come find out, the Corps doesn’t even have enough money to put the levee back the way it was supposed to. So what am I supposed to do? Is this going to happen again next year? What do I do? If it happens again, I’m out. I’m wasting my time. And that puts us in a real bad situation, that’s where a lot of this anger comes from. We’re left helpless.”

Binder accused the Corps of prioritizing wildlife over flood control in the past, and, pointedly addressing McMahon, said the lives of his children shouldn’t come in second to those of fish and wildlife. McMahon reminded the audience that the Corps is on their side, and is making its decisions with their livelihood in mind.

“We’re in this with you,” McMahon said. “We’re not hiding or dodging or anything. We’re in this with you. We want to serve you the citizens of this basin to the best of our ability, which I think we’ve done to this point, but I’ll let others be the judge of that ultimately.”

McMahon said the Corps has launched an external review of their handling of the flood, and the results of that report will be out in December. The Corps’ public hearings continue this week, with a final hearing in Sioux City, Iowa November 3rd.

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