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Living Without Levees: Pushing Paper, but Not Much Dirt

April 16, 1994

Undated (AP) _ Every spring, Glen Beckmeyer gambles when he plants his crop. This year, the odds are even longer for the farmer facing one big frustration: He’s still waiting for the levees.

Nine months after The Flood wiped out his crop, rising waters have swamped his land again and two levees that protect it probably won’t be repaired until late summer. And that makes Beckmeyer anxious.

″Oh yeah, I’m nervous,″ said the Hartsburg, Mo., farmer. ″My guess is we’ll stick our neck out. If I don’t plant, I lose this year’s income. I’ve got to take that risk.″

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to fix Midwest levees damaged during the Flood of ’93, but Beckmeyer and thousands of other weary survivors are wondering why progress has been so slow in their communities. Many think they’re victims again - this time the culprit being red tape.

″I heard a farmer say, ‘We’re pushing a heck of a lot of paper here, but we’re not pushing any dirt,’ ″ said Bob Hitzhusen, director of national legislative programs at the Missouri Farm Bureau.

″There is a resignation and feeling ... that ‘Jiminy, what can we expect when you’re messing with the federal government?,’ ″ said Carl Lensing, a levee district chairman and farmer near Hermann, Mo.

Farmers, merchants and small-town residents fear land values will fall, tourism will decline and business will dry up if levees aren’t fixed soon.

Tensions rose this week as floods in Missouri and Illinois forced hundreds from their homes even as levees were being repaired.

The pace of the work prompted Missouri Sen. Christopher Bond to take the Senate floor Wednesday and blame bureaucrats for new flooding, claiming they ″have delayed, dawdled and procrastinated ... (and) used every means in the book to find excuses for not repairing the levees.″

In its defense, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is repairing some 200 larger levees in eight states, says weather and the enormity of the task have hampered progress on the $219 million project.

Only about a fifth of the levees - 37 - have been completed, but work on scores more is under way, the agency reports.

″It is a massive task and conditions have to be met,″ said George Halford, a corps spokesman in Washington, D.C. ″We have to do reports, cost- benefit ratios, environmental statements.″

Fall floods and a severe winter caused more problems. ″A lot of the levees had water on them until late in the year,″ he said. ″There was just a narrow band of time where we could get work done.″

The corps also set priorities, with heavily populated regions and major industrial and transportation areas among those at the top of the repair list and agriculture at the bottom.

The agency pays 80 percent of the costs, with the local levee districts financing the remainder.

Many complaints come from folks living along the Missouri River. Of the 112 levees the corps agreed to fix in Missouri, final repairs are done or under way on 35, Halford said.

In Illinois, repairs are complete or being worked on in 22 of 48 levees, he said, while in Iowa, it’s 14 of 17 levees.

While the corps is tackling larger projects, the Soil Conservation Service, part of the Agriculture Department, has finished repairs on 255 of 363 smaller levees it agreed to fix, said Karl Otte, deputy director for water resources.

The agency rejected 500 others because they were too small or damage was less than $2,000, he said.

The involvement of several federal agencies in levee work has sparked some grumbling that may be legitimate, said Major Gen. Stan Genega, head of the corps’ division in Washington overseeing the projects.

″There probably has been some fair criticism,″ he said. ″You have overlapping programs and different federal agencies ... making it more complicated for the aid and assistance to flow to the person who needs it.″

That’s little consolation to Missouri grocer Bob Johnson, who estimates his business outside the town of Hermann is down 40 percent because of highway flooding resulting from an unrepaired levee.

″This just wreaks havoc on this little town,″ he said. ″We’re really suffering. ... Any time they talk about a shower, I worry.″

Lensing is apprehensive, too, because the government wants to move the levee and residents have to negotiate for and purchase land.

″We have to muddle through and cajole people into accepting those realignments and we have to compensate them for it,″ he said. ″If we can’t raise the money, we can’t come to the table and play.″

But many are stoic about delays, considering it the price of living near a river.

″Yeah, we’ve had it rough,″ Beckmeyer said. ″But we knew things like this could happen when you farm the river bottom. ... So you just pick up the pieces and go on.″


EDITOR’S NOTE - Sharon Cohen is the AP’s Midwest regional writer, based in Chicago.

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