By CAIN BURDEAU
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Army Corps of Engineers said on Thursday it’s getting $802 million to repair levees damaged by the historic flooding on the Mississippi River this year — work considered urgent before the next spring flood season starts.
With forecasts for another wet spring next year, the corps said repairing the river system is critical. It warned that the river’s water levels remain “significantly above normal” and that weather forecasts indicate it could be “a wetter-than-usual flood season.”
“The Corps of Engineers is working the entire length of the river to prepare for the possibility of more flooding in the near term,” the agency said.
Money for repairs to levees and other structures were part of a disaster relief spending bill signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 23.
The corps said it would use the winter and spring seasons to develop plans and designs for repairs to the river system so that it could be ready for construction “once weather improves.”
The corps has spent about $124 million on repairs already on the Mississippi system.
Robert Fitzgerald, the chief of technical engineering for the corps’ Mississippi Valley Division, said it would take years to repair the entire system and get it back to the condition it was in before this year’s flooding. The corps said the flooding in 2011 was the largest recorded flood in the Mississippi River’s history.
Maj. Gen. John Peabody, the commander of the corps’ Mississippi Valley Division, said the emergency money was “a vital investment in the most valuable flood risk reduction system in our nation, perhaps in the world.”
Peabody said the levee system on the Mississippi “has earned its value many times over.” The agency estimates that the levee system it built after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 prevented tens of billions of dollars in damages this year.
The levee system on the Mississippi also protects New Orleans from river flooding. The river levees in New Orleans were not breached when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the city, flooding more than 80 percent of the city after corps-built hurricane levees and floodwalls broke. The corps has spent about $14 billion to beef up levees, pumps and floodwalls in New Orleans.
Corps engineers have not finished damage assessments from the river flooding, but estimate that the damage in the Mississippi River valley alone was nearly $1 billion.
Bob Anderson, a corps spokesman, said the worst damage was in areas where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet. The corps intentionally blew up levees in Missouri to release pressure on the main part of the river.
Anderson said there were trouble spots up and down the river at spots where the flooding threatened to change the river’s course, gouging out riverbanks.
To control the flood, the corps allowed water to pour through the Morganza and Bonnet Carre floodways in Louisiana and those areas will need to be repaired too, he said.
He said repairs were needed at the Old River Control Structure, a spot north of Baton Rouge where the corps has built large structures to keep the Mississippi from changing course and heading into the Atchafalaya River.
Associated Press writer Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans also contributed to this report.