Group: Southwestern Illinois Levee Fixes May Cost $170M

June 17, 2010

A group scrambling to upgrade Mississippi River levees in southwestern Illinois before new floodplain maps potentially raise insurance costs says it can make the fixes for $160 million to $170 million – and pay for it with sales taxes and bonds.

The Southwestern Illinois Flood Protection District Council says the fixes would make the 64 miles of barriers capable of handling a 100-year flood – an inundation so big that it has a 1 percent chance of happening any given year. It’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s threshold for classifying an area a high-risk flood area.

The Army Corps of Engineers has said $300 million to $500 million could be needed to restore the levees to the protection level they had when they were built after World War II, capable of weathering a 500-year flood. That’s one with a 0.2 percent chance of happening any year.

The Army Corps does not have its own estimate of what it might take to upgrade the levees to a 100-year level of protection, said Alan Dooley, a spokesman for the agency in St. Louis. Dooley could not speak to the flood council’s estimates, saying he was unaware of what was factored into them.

The council considers the lower price tag coverable by the roughly $10 million a year the three affected counties are collecting in a quarter-cent sales tax – and bonds the panel plans to issue.

“We believe that we can accomplish the project, and get the levees accredited for the money that we can bring in through the bonds,” Les Sterman, the flood district council’s chief engineer, told the Belleville News-Democrat.

The council stands poised to hire one of three contractors bidding to do the work, though it’s unlikely the fixes on the levees spanning three counties would be done before Jan. 1, when new flood-hazard maps being drawn up by FEMA are to take effect.

Those maps are expected to show the region’s levees functionally useless, meaning they are unable to handle a 100-year flood.

Messages left for Sterman by The Associated Press were not immediately returned.

Several area communities and levee districts have pressed FEMA to hold off on enacting the new flood-hazard maps, hoping to buy time and raise the money needed to make the required fixes. FEMA has said it would rule on that matter by June 1 but since has said it needs more time.

Area officials worry that the mapping downgrade would force thousands of the region’s homeowners with federally backed mortgages to buy flood insurance, even if they’ve never been swamped.

Last month, FEMA announced that property owners across the country who feared they may be forced to buy expensive flood insurance under the new floodplain maps will be offered the coverage at sharply lower rates for two years.

FEMA has agreed to offer up to two years’ eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program’s Preferred Risk Policy – the program’s lowest-cost option – to small businesses and homeowners on any land the new maps show are in newly designated special flood hazard areas. The new rates are available after the redrawn maps take effect, in many cases this fall or early next year.

The savings could be big: An affected homeowner’s yearly premium under the preferred risk program might be $300 – four to five times less than what it might cost otherwise, Sterman has said.

Information from: Belleville News-Democrat,

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