Did Army Politics Override Public Safety?

This past week, the “Sioux Falls Argus Leader” and the Gannett Washington Bureau acquired thousands of Army Corps of Engineers e-mails related to the Missouri River flood of 2011.  The e-mails confirm that Brigadier General John McMahon and Jody Farhat have been concerned about media criticism of the Army’s management of the reservoirs this past winter and spring.  The e-mails also indicate that officials have sought to lessen criticism of the Army’s actions along the river by framing the flood as a consequence of extreme weather.  The Army wants the public to believe that neither the Army’s management of the upstream reservoirs nor its flood-prone navigation channel south of Ponca, Nebraska, caused the Great Flood of 2011.  One unnamed official urged his/her colleagues to continually emphasize to the media that the flood was an unprecedented event that resulted entirely from excessive precipitation.  He/she stated in an e-mail, “It is important that we keep pounding that message with the locals….”  Since May, Army officials have stayed consistently “on message.”  No one within the Army has said a word about how reservoir operations and the navigation channel contributed to the flood.  Many media outlets have accepted the Army’s interpretation of the causes of the flood, especially those located in the state of Missouri. 

By blaming the flood wholly on torrential rains and a heavy snowpack, the Army deflected public scrutiny of its own role in the flood.  Unfortunately, the Army’s explanation for the flood carries with it grave dangers for residents of the Missouri Valley.  For instance, on July 29, 2011, the Northwestern Division’s McMahon declared that the Army would not modify the operation of the upstream reservoirs at the start of next year’s runoff season.  Instead, the Army will maintain the reservoir system base level at 56.8 MAF (million acre feet).  That is the same base level that existed at the start of this year’s runoff season.  That high base level made it impossible for the upstream reservoirs to capture all of the floodwaters coming into the system in May and June.  Had the base level been lower at the start of this year’s runoff season, the flood of 2011 may not have occurred at all.  But McMahon may have made his decision out of concern for the public’s perception of the Army.  He may have concluded that a decision to lower the reservoir system base level next year to free up additional storage space would be a tacit admission that the Army got it wrong this year.  In other words, he may have thought that dropping the reservoirs lower at the start of the 2012 runoff season would be the equivalent of admitting that that the Army should have done the same in 2011.  But since McMahon and his colleagues have insisted since May that the Army handled the flood according to its Master Manual, that it did not make any mistakes, that the reservoirs were at the proper level, and that the weather was to blame for the flood, McMahon cannot now lower the base level without raising serious questions about the Army’s management of the river.

The Army has painted itself into a corner.  Its continued insistence that it made no mistakes this year along the Missouri and that the flood resulted from rain events in Montana in May has made it politically impossible for it to now either alter the reservoir base level or let the river back into its floodplain along the navigation channel.  Yet, both of those actions would bring real flood control to the valley.  By maintaining the status quo, and offering no new means of diminishing the flood threat, McMahon quite possibly believes he is protecting the Army and his own career.  Yet, his decision puts the entire valley at risk of another flood next year.  McMahon may have subsumed public safety to the Army’s overriding concern with political considerations and institutional survival.  It was that very mentality, and those same concerns, that prevented the Army from effectively dealing with this year’s high runoff.

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