The 2019 Mississippi River flood fight is going to slog deep into the summer — and maybe much longer.
While communities north of St. Louis are beginning the expensive path to recovery after record-breaking winter and spring precipitation and runoff, people below the Missouri River are shoveling mud from their houses and praying for a dry spell.
The Lower Mississippi Valley remains in a flood crisis as high water continues to swamp streets, homes, businesses, sewage and water treatment plants, and farm fields, including across some of the poorest counties in the United States.
"As a Mississippi River mayor, I can say this event has been a long, hard fight for us, and we likely have many more months," Greenville, Miss., Mayor Errick Simmons said yesterday on a conference call with fellow river city mayors and reporters.
"Our flooding has been over 100 days. We have an increasingly severe homelessness situation. ... Hopes have been completely destroyed," he said. "With 38.5 inches of rain, our poor folks get hit the hardest."
It doesn't require a hydrologist to know how the 2019 flood differs from previous high-water events. The mayors have lived it close up. They have comforted friends, family and neighbors and tried not to break promises that their communities will rebuild.
Climate scientists say such extreme events — flood or drought — will make it much harder to chart a future along some sections of the river.
"The biggest problem we're dealing with ... is the mental aspect," said Grafton, Ill., Mayor Rick Eberlin, whose city of 640 people lives and dies by river tourism.
With prior floods, "it was a nuisance and then we were back in business," he added. "But the duration [of this flood] wears and tears on the minds of not only the business owners but the homeowners. I know several that are done."
As it stands, the river needs to drop an additional 4 feet to open Grafton's main street — the "Great River Road" — by the July 4 holiday.
Jared Gartman, chief of readiness and contingency operations for the Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi Valley Division in Vicksburg, Miss., said most of the Army Corps districts in the basin have broken records for flood duration, in some places by weeks, and roughly 30 levees have been overtopped or breached in the lower basin.
High water along the Mississippi, particularly in the New Orleans district, has exceeded levels seen during the Great Flood of 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. The Army Corps has been fully engaged in a "flood fight" for eight months and has been activated for flood response for nearly a year.
"There's no end in sight for them at present," Gartman said.
He stressed that the 2019 flood has a rare distinction as a "total system flood," meaning every sub-basin of the Mississippi River has been subject to high water, exacerbating conditions in Southern states like Mississippi and Louisiana.
"There is more water that has passed under the Vicksburg bridge during this flood than in the 2008 and 2011 floods combined," Gartman said. "That gives you testimony of the duration of this flood."
Major blow for U.S. agriculture
About 75 miles south of Vicksburg, in Vidalia, La., Mayor Buz Craft's flood fight has reached 200 days.
The swollen Mississippi has not only overwhelmed the town's front-line protection system but is now seeping underneath the town as the weight of the 1.5 million cubic feet of water places immense hydrostatic pressure on surrounding land. The result is "sand boils" in the streets as water is pushed up from the subsurface like small geysers.
"We've already identified over $2 million in damage just on infrastructure repairs to our streets and water systems," Craft said, stretching his small city's budget past the breaking point.
Along the mainstem Mississippi, damages already exceed $2 billion, according to estimates from insurers provided to the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. Colin Wellenkamp, the initiative's executive director, said damages could well exceed $4.3 billion when accounting for the broader basin.
That would rival damages from the 2011 flood, the most destructive of the past 25 years.
Impacts are being felt well beyond the riverfront.
Warren Preston, deputy chief economist for the Department of Agriculture, said extraordinarily wet conditions across the Corn Belt, combined with a cool spring, have shortened the planting season and the number of growing degree days.
The floods have also taken roughly 3 million acres of corn production out of the economy this year. That translates into a 4% reduction in income to farmers, or $4.5 billion in corn receipts, he said.
Navigation and commerce on the Mississippi also "have been impacted tremendously in a negative way," said Dan Mecklenborg, chief legal officer and secretary for Ingram Marine Group, one of the largest movers of grain and other commodities on the river.
"In ordinary years, we are generally able to operate toward to the middle to end of March," he said. "This year it's been a total closure with the exception of a few days when we got a couple of boats operating toward Minneapolis."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news atwww.eenews.net.