Defending Montevideo from the flood waters

Montevideo levee
The Montevideo levee was built before modern FEMA standards took effect. It was a hurry-up project. In March 1969, heavy snowcover threatened record flooding. In just 10 days of nearly round-the-clock work, more than a mile of levees were built.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

A heavy March snow triggers immediate reactions in the Minnesota River valley. Montevideo Mayor Jim Curtiss says before the cleanup from last week's storm was over people were thinking about the spring melt.

"We're nervous right now. We talked about it at city council on Monday night," says Curtiss. "We're prepared, we monitor things. The closer we get to April we'll have some weekly meetings on preparing."

With luck the city will avoid heavy rain or snow in the next month. If that happens this year's high water will be little more than a nuisance. That will leave Mayor Curtiss plenty of time to deal with what may be his real flood headache this year, dealing with the federal government.

"I don't know quite the word for it, they're not guaranteeing our levee system the way it is right now," says Curtiss.

Curtiss
Montevideo Mayor Jim Curtiss says before the cleanup from recent snow storms was over people were thinking about the spring melt.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, is in the middle of a multi-year project to redraw the nation's flood plain maps. It's an attempt to assess what sort of flood risk different parts of the country face. As part of that work FEMA is studying thousands of miles of levees, including the ones in Montevideo. FEMA will decide whether the Montevideo dike and many others nationwide are capable of withstanding a major flood. Mayor Curtiss believes the Montevideo levee would protect the city in another major flood. He says however the city is unable to prove that FEMA's satisfaction.

"I don't think the present system could be certified," says Curtiss. "Basically it isn't built the way a levee system should be built."

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Modern levees are designed and blueprinted to FEMA standards. The Montevideo levee was built before those standards took effect. It was a hurry-up project. In March 1969, heavy snowcover threatened record flooding. In just 10 days of nearly round-the-clock work, more than a mile of levees were built.

They still protect hundreds of parcels of property in the lower part of town. Curtiss says if FEMA declares the earthen structures unfloodworthy, federal officials would redesignate the land as higher risk flood plain.

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Most property owners are paying little attention to the tussle between the city and FEMA over the levees. Curtiss says that will change if the levees are decertified. For one thing property owners might find their zoning designation changed. They might not be able to build or add on if they're in a flood zone. He says many may also be forced to buy flood insurance.

"It's tough on, well it's tough on me as a business owner to carry flood insurance," says Curtiss. "It's very expensive for one thing, an expense you don't need."

Curtiss owns a truck stop in Montevideo. The levee runs through the back edge of his property. The mayor says the pending FEMA action is especially bitter since the city plans to rebuild the levees in the next two years. He says the new levees will easily pass the FEMA test. FEMA officials will not comment directly on the Montevideo situation. However the agency's Terry Fell says the national reassessment will help root out weak spots in the nation's flood defense system.

"There's a lot of really old levees," says Fell. "Many of them were not designed to provide the level of protection that we can accredit on our flood insurance rate maps. They can be overtopped or they can fail in a larger flood event. They can also decay overtime."

Fell says in certain circumstances a community may be given extra time to certify it's flood protection system. Mayor Curtiss says time is exactly what the city needs to redo the levees.

"Once we get the funding, we'll have our levee systems up to code and they will be certified," says Curtiss.

Curtiss says the city is waiting on federal funds for the $9 million levee project. He says until the funds arrive, city officials hope to delay any FEMA action on the current levee system.