Making the decision to blow almost four miles of Mississippi River levee to operate the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway was one of the most difficult decisions of Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh's 34-year career as an Army officer.
The decision doomed 130,000 acres of farms and homesteads to flooding, but averted a much greater risk to lives, property and the Mississippi River & Tributaries System itself.
The 2011 Mississippi River floods were the worst in history. Record water levels and flow rates required Walsh make many critical decisions, including the first-time-ever, simultaneous operation of all three floodways in the MR&T.
During his almost four years as commander of the MVD, Walsh—since promoted to Corps deputy commander for civil works and emergency operations— was challenged by five major river floods, two hurricanes and the largest design-build construction project in U. S. history, the Greater New Orleans Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System.
But Charles Camillo, MVD lead historian, says nothing compared to giving the order to operate the BPNM floodway. Camillo says he watched Walsh agonize over it. "He was trying his hardest to keep from operating this floodway," he says.
Opening the other two floodways were relatively easier decisions with recent precedents. One only inundated a natural floodway and the other only flooded federal land, but the engineered BPNM had not been opened since 1937 and Missourians bitterly opposed it. The state even sought an injunction from a federal judge to block the opening, which was denied.
The BPNM Floodway was created by the Corps after the disastrous floods of 1927 as a relief valve for the MR&T, as authorized by the 1928 Flood Act. But Missourians have historically felt the BPNM was forced on them and that it put them in the position of sacrificing their homes and farms to protect other states.
And as late as 4 a.m. on the day he gave the order, Walsh was convinced BPNM wouldn't have to be used. But then the forecasted river level at the Cairo, Ill., gauge jumped from 61 ft to 63.5 ft. At that point the Corps had to swing into high gear to make the detonation before lightning, overtopping, or a break elsewhere in the system stymied their actions.
Walsh's successful management of the MR&T during the floods of 2011 is credited with preventing a disaster that would have affected 4.1 million people, inundated 10 million acres, and caused $110 billion in damages.