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As the Mississippi Crests, Corps Mans the Defenses

St. Louis takes its turn; engineers' flood-control strategy questioned

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AS the Mississippi River was expected to reach a record crest of 47 feet here yesterday - just five feet less than the height of the city's flood wall - an inevitable question throughout the Midwest bobs like a cork on top of the muddy crest: In addition to the heavy rains, why did all this flooding happen?

Over the last few weeks, much public debate has centered on the practices and culpability of the Army Corps of Engineers in the flooding of the Mississippi, which washed through a neighborhood here Sunday. Hundreds left when sandbags couldn't hold back water from a storm channel.

"After every flood we get blamed," says Gary Dyhouse, a hydrologist with the corps for 26 years. "But we have built a very good system of levees to withhold water," he says, "and to prevent more water from coming here to St. Louis, for instance. Without the levees and reservoirs, it would be much worse."

Environmentalists say this kind of reasoning overlooks the fact that flooded conditions along the heavily damned upper Mississippi are now the worst ever. Since the 1900s, the Army Corps of Engineers has built some 500 dams and about 10,000 miles of levees, nearly all designed to control the flow of rivers at a cost of $25 billion.

Brig. Gen. Stanley Genega, director of civil works for the corps, says this investment in federal levees and dams has prevented more than $200 billion in flood damages since 1937, including $8.2 billion in the Midwest.

"There are 36 reservoirs up the river from here," Mr. Dyhouse says. "At a minimum, those reservoirs lop off three to four feet from the crest here."

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