As a Metro East business owner, I know the value of the Mississippi River levee system. It protects my company, the homes and families of my employees, and our neighbors in a huge area known as the American Bottoms. When levees do their job, they are all but invisible – and when the waters of the Mississippi rise, we don’t give it much thought. Without the levees to protect our businesses, homes, and communities, the loss of lives and property would be catastrophic.
There are over 86 miles of levees between Alton and Columbia, Illinois. The levees protect an area of 175 square miles that is home to 150,000 people and 50,000 jobs. In 2008, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) threatened to “decertify” our levee system, which meant that the agency believed that the area would not be protected against the 100-year flood (the great flood of 1993 was far in excess of this level). Had FEMA followed through on this threat, flood insurance rates would have skyrocketed for homeowners and businesses. The very real outcome would be people losing their homes, businesses leaving the area, and economic growth coming to an abrupt halt. Far worse, a serious flood comparable to the one in 1993 could cause a levee failure and devastation rivaling that caused by hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. Even the threat of FEMA’s action slowed economic activities in the American Bottoms over the past 10 years.
Fortunately, county and state leaders recognized the urgency of the situation and were mobilized to quickly respond. In an unusual cooperative effort, Madison, Monroe, and St. Clair County leaders quickly organized to work with the Illinois legislature to create the Southwestern Illinois Flood Protection District (FPD) and adopt a small local sales tax to address this critical challenge. Fast forward to 2016 -the FPD is nearing the completion on a $110M project to restore the levee system.
Had we relied on the federal government to address the problem, projections by the Corps of Engineers suggested that the same project would take decades. When faced with that prospect, the leaders of the three counties rightfully came to the conclusion that we needed to do the jobs ourselves – raise the money locally, cut red tape to compress the time schedule, and use local contractors and workers to assure that our tax money stayed home to support our communities.
This project has been done quietly, without much fanfare. The agency that oversaw the work has one staff member and a small office. Perhaps the time has come to recognize the wisdom of the strategy to get this project done to protect our economy and the lives and property in the American Bottom. This is a story of self-reliance, cooperation, and smart planning. While we often criticize government for being slow, inefficient, and wasteful, this project is a model for how to do things right. Thanks to those who made it happen.
Gayle L. Ortyl – President
Metro East Industries Inc.