FEMA forces $624,000 test of levee

City officials aren't happy about it at all.

During a tight budget year, Augusta has to shell out more than half a million dollars to prove the Savannah River levee won't break and flood downtown. The federal agency accused of botching its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is requiring it be done by year's end; otherwise, property owners in the vicinity will have to buy flood insurance to get financing.

"I don't see a lot of bang for our buck in that situation, but apparently we're going to have to do it," Mayor Deke Copenhaver said.

With three dams upstream, the prospect of johnboats floating down Broad Street isn't a major concern these days. Some factions want the 90-year-old levee flattened so the riverfront could be as scenic as the one along Hammond's Ferry on North Augusta's side, or better yet, along Savannah's River Street.

Still, on Monday the Augusta Commission's Engineering Services Committee approved paying Cranston Engineering Group, the company that designed the Riverwalk Augusta improvements, as much as $624,470 to certify the levee.

If the full commission approves the expenditure next week, City Administrator Fred Russell said it would be paid with unused special-purpose sales tax funds, so it won't affect efforts to keep the tax rate down this year.

The city has been in talks with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for more than a year, talks Mr. Copenhaver and the administrator described as frustrating. FEMA has been redrawing its flood maps in the wake of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans and says that unless Augusta's levee is certified, the city's maps will be drawn as if the levee isn't there.

Even if that were the case, Columbia County Emergency Services Director Pam Tucker said she's not sure it would make a difference. Augusta built the levee to protect against floods that plagued the city in the 1800s and early 1900s, but now Thurmond Dam controls river flow.

Ms. Tucker drew up a dam-failure plan for Augusta during her 21 years as Richmond County's emergency management director. If the lake waters were somehow unleashed, she said, they'd back up every stream and creek that feeds into the river, and the levee wouldn't be an issue.

"In the event of a dam failure, Augusta is going to flood, and so are we" in Columbia County, Ms. Tucker said.

Augusta could run into other complications -- and expenses -- if the levee doesn't pass certification. Under the corps' Inspection of Completed Works program, the levee rates a 2, for "marginally acceptable," on a scale of 1-3.

Cranston President Tom Robertson said engineers will drill holes down to the levee's foundation at points along its 12-mile stretch to make sure it's stable. Seismic tests would have to be done, and the firm would research the scenario of a dam break.

"There's a lot of work that's got to be done, and it's got to be done in a short amount of time," Mr. Robertson said.

Mr. Copenhaver said Augusta is lucky to have the money on hand, but he wonders about communities along the Mississippi Delta that might not be faring so well in this recession.

"I would guess that at some point somebody's going to ask for stimulus money to certify a levee," he said.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

LEVEE HISTORY

After severe floods in 1908 and 1912, the city and the federal government spent $2.2 million on a levee completed in 1918, but waters broke it during Augusta's worst flood on record, in 1929. The levee was enlarged from 1936-40 with help from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Works Progress Administration.

In 1954, the corps finished construction of Clarks Hill Dam, which now controls the river's flow from Augusta to Savannah.

In the 1980s, former U.S. Rep. D. Douglas Barnard pushed through federal legislation allowing the breaches in the levee that made Riverwalk Augusta possible. The levee stretches about 12 miles from the Augusta Canal headgates to Butler Creek.

Source: Augusta Chronicle archives, Army Corps of Engineers