Spring rains were already swelling the Mississippi River, threatening floods along a 700-mile stretch between St. Louis and Baton Rouge, La., when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed up at a convention center in Manhattan in late-March. The Army Corps is responsible for most of the country’s disaster-response infrastructure. Primarily, that means keeping the Mississippi at bay. In this case, however, it meant transforming the Javits Center into a 1,000-bed field hospital for coronavirus patients overflowing New York City’s hospitals.
The coinciding threats of flood season and Covid-19 have already put a strain on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which works closely with the Corps and coordinates the logistics of getting supplies and aid around the country. But the Corps itself is less likely to be swamped by the pandemic. “They are probably not going to be overtaxed by this,” says Tim Frazier, the director of Georgetown University’s emergency and disaster management program. “They are very good at moving stuff, they are very good at logistics, and they are good at building stuff.”
With more than 35,000 civilian and military workers, the Corps oversees deactivated nuclear power plants, sets water storage rules for reservoirs, watches over levees and locks on U.S. rivers, and manages the physical cleanup of toxic superfund sites. The Corps had already started shutting down peripheral missions in early March, such as overseeing camp sites and parks. By mid-month, FEMA had given the Corps $361 million and instructions to start planning and building hospitals in New York, California and Washington state, according to Raini Brunson, a spokeswoman for the Corps. Since then, it’s begun additional projects in Huntsville, Ala., and downtown Detroit, and has asked governors across the country to identify hotels, dormitories, and convention centers that can be converted to treatment centers and stocked with medical supplies.
This is the third year in a row of dangerously high water in the river. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted last month that more than 128 million people in 23 states are at risk of spring flooding this year, with 1.2 million likely to experience disaster-level deluges. So far this year hasn’t been as bad as the last, which saw parts of the Mississippi remain above “flood stage” — the point at which water levels are considered hazardous — for a record 292 days. The water got so high in 2019 that the Corps twice had to divert water into Lake Pontchartrain to protect the city of New Orleans, and came close to opening another rarely used diversion channel further upstream.
As of Monday, 154 river gauges were at flood stage with another 171 near that level. Major flooding was occurring at Baton Rouge, with the Mississippi forecast to crest about 4 feet below its all-time record. Most of the other trouble spots are along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries. Fargo, North Dakota, began closing roads as the Red River leapt its banks in the last week of March, but the Corps hasn’t yet gotten involved.
In interviews with Bloomberg News last month, mayors from towns up and down the Mississippi Valley indicated that they’d been promised the same level of support from federal agencies as in previous years, including from the Army Corps of Engineers. Concerns remain, however, as to how they’ll be able to protect local emergency workers and volunteers from the coronavirus should a flooding emergency occur.
The Corps has asked the public to respect social distancing and stay “a distance of 6 feet when interacting with our personnel,” according to a statement announcing the resumption of its flood fight in Louisiana. Much of the activity involved in monitoring flood risk — patrolling lonely stretches of levy, inspecting locks and dams, checking banks for erosion — is fairly solitary, Frazier says, which will likely play into the Corps’s favor.
Unlike FEMA, whose personnel go house to house checking on affected populations, the Corps can do more to keep its distance. On April 3, for instance, the Corps once again had to divert water out of the Mississippi to keep New Orleans from flooding — but that work required just a few crane operators, not a crowd of densely packed workers. Many of the other areas threatened by flood are rural and sparsely populated, which also lowers the risk of infection.
Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi, is a key location for managing flood risk. The Ohio River is responsible for 60% of the water that eventually flows from the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, so if Cairo is in flood, then a flood is coming farther south.
“We’re getting another rise,” says Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center says of conditions in Cairo. “It will be similar to what we saw at the end of February and March,” when flood stage waters slowed some barge traffic and pushed against levees.
Offering a ray of hope, a drier weather pattern may soon cause rain to slack off across the Midwest, giving the river time to process the current torrent of water coming down. At the same time, though, there’s a chance of precipitation across Arkansas, which also drains into the Mississippi.
Graschel isn’t ready to predict whether 2020 will reach the levels of 2018 and 2019. “You never say never,” he says.
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