8/15/12 – Five Years after FEMA’s Announcement Took Region by Surprise, Recertification of Metro East Levees Remains Top Priority

Progress has been made, but much work remains for levees to meet 100-year level of protection

EDWARDSVILLE, ILL., Aug. 15, 2012 . . . Southwestern Illinois today marks an important milestone. It was August 15, 2007, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) surprised the region with its announcement that the agency no longer considered the Metro East levees to be adequately providing protection at the 100-year flood level. In the five years since, we’ve learned that FEMA reached that conclusion through a faulty process that did not include any specific documentation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Despite this, the announcement triggered a process that, if allowed to run its course, would declare almost all of the American Bottoms a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA), with potentially devastating economic outcomes for the St. Louis region, particularly for the more than 150,000 residents, 4,000 employers and 56,000 jobs protected by the levees.

Fortunately, while FEMA’s ill-planned actions related to its national flood plain remapping process created a social and economic shockwave, it also triggered a remarkable regional response. That response was aimed at preventing impacted businesses and residents from having to purchase mandatory flood insurance or adhere to new elevation standards for construction of any new buildings once the new flood maps become final. With little or no assistance from federal agencies, local and state leaders worked through the critical issues and developed a plan to improve our levees to the new federal standards.

“Our strategy required the Metro East region to take command of the process, improvements and funding, and the progress made so far is a great testimony to the region’s resolve and ability to work together in the face of real crisis,” noted Rich Conner, president of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, which administers the St. Louis Metro East Levee Issues Alliance (LIA). “As we mark this five year anniversary, it’s appropriate to step back and recognize the significant progress that’s been made and to draw strength from the region’s successes to date as we tackle the challenges that remain on our path to recertification of the levees.”

Among the key successes are the following:

  • Creation of the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council to facilitate continued collaboration between the three counties as they work together to oversee the restoration of the Metro East levee system.
  • Authorization by Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties of a quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to funding the levee repair work.
  • Launch of the St. Louis Metro East Levee Issues Alliance, a growing coalition of business and civic organizations, community leaders and concerned citizens working together in a watchdog capacity to help ensure the timely completion of improvements to the Metro East Levees to meet new federal standards.
  • Agreement by FEMA to senators’ request to end “Without Levees” policy in modernizing flood maps.
  • Announcement by FEMA in open court that it had abandoned its proposed flood insurance rate maps that reflected a de-accreditation of the Metro East levee systems.
  • Start of construction on the first bid package in the $161 million project to improve the Metro East levee system so it continues to meet all applicable regulatory and engineering standards and can remain certified.

Spirits were high earlier this summer as construction got underway, but it soon became apparent that the design modifications being requested by the Corps to additional pieces of the project were impacting the project schedule. That revelation caused the Levee Issues Alliance to stop the recently activated Countdown Clock tracking the progress on the project in order to assess the extent of the delays and the potential impact of the more conservative design approach on the project budget. Even though 60% designs plans were submitted in December of 2011, and a workshop was held earlier this summer to try to work through some of the concerns the Corps had with elements of the proposed design, it’s now mid August and there is still no consensus on the design.

“Concerns raised by our three County Board Chairmen at this morning’s FPD Council meeting underscore the rising level of frustration as the impasse continues,” noted Conner. “Reaching the 100-year flood protection mark provides better protection than what we’ve got today, and we’ve got the funding in place to reach that goal by 2015 if we can move forward.  We respect that the Corps’ ultimate goal is to improve the levees to the 500-year standard, but they don’t have the funding to do that at this time, and with FEMA back at the drawing board working to revamp its remapping process in order to issue its new maps in the near future, we don’t have time to wait.”

The LIA continues to meet with the FPD council and Corps of Engineers in an effort to find a path forward for the work to continue on the current locally funded project that will improve the levees to the 100-year flood protection level. In the meantime, the Corps also is simultaneously working on almost $120 million in rehabilitation work on the Metro East Levees as part of its effort to restore them to their original authorized 500-year level of protection. The challenge in the coming weeks will be finding a way to get Corps approval on a design approach that can be funded locally, so that effort can move forward, the project can get back on track, and the countdown clock can be restarted.

“While the successes to date deserve to be acknowledged, there is much work ahead if our region is to ultimately declare victory on this critical issue,” noted Conner. “We salute our County Board Chairmen for making the tough decisions that got us this far and remain confident that, by working together and engaging all the parties involved in finding workable solutions to the current challenges, we can find a path forward that protects lives and livelihoods in the American Bottom, while reaffirming that it is a place where businesses can invest with confidence.”

The Levee Issues Alliance is calling on other area citizens to join the Alliance at www.stlmetroeastlevees.org to stay up-to-date on this vital issue and reinforce that timely completion of the project remains the top priority for the region.

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For more information, contact:

Julie Hauser, The Hauser Group, 314.436.9090

Ellen Krohne, Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, 618.692.9745

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