‘Breaches Everywhere’: Flooding Bursts Midwest Levees, and Tough Questions Follow

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Hundreds of miles of levees in the Midwest have been overwhelmed by the floods, leaving “Swiss cheese” infrastructure and reigniting a flood control debate.

CORNING, Mo. — The widespread, severe flooding in the Midwest over the last month has exposed the vulnerabilities in a levee system that is now so full of holes that many here ruefully describe it as “Swiss cheese.”

With dozens of costly breaks across Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and nearby states, the surging waters have left large areas without even cursory flood protection.

“Breaches everywhere: multiple, multiple breaches,” said Tom Bullock, the top elected official in Holt County, Mo., where crews were rushing last week to patch a leaking levee that, if it failed completely, would flood the small town of Fortescue.

And with the fear of more floods in the coming years — and perhaps even the coming weeks — many people said living and farming near the water might not be viable much longer without major changes.

“We can’t keep this up and make a living,” Michael Peters, who grows corn and soybeans on fertile bottomland in northwest Missouri, said last week after trying to find a path to his submerged farm in a motorboat.

On the river-specked Midwestern prairie, the thousands of miles of levees are an insurance policy against nature’s whims that, at their best, keep cropland and towns dry, floodwaters at bay and the agriculture-driven economy churning. But the levees are aging, subject to uneven regulation and, in many cases, never designed to withstand the river levels seen in the last decade.

The recent flooding — which has devastated farms, roads and Native American reservations — has pushed to the foreground a debate that has raged quietly for generations. It boils down to this: How should the rivers be controlled, who should make those decisions and how much protection should be given to those most vulnerable?

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