The Midwest needs more than levees to survive its "biblical" floods

The race is on to repair aging flood-protection systems before the rivers rise again.

PERU, Nebraska — Brett Adams’ corn and soybean fields were still underwater three weeks after the record flooding in the Midwest in March, set off by a bomb cyclone and torrential rain. River waters tore through the area’s aging levee system that was supposed to protect Adams' land and the town of Peru. He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to replant next year, or even the year after.

Along the Midwest’s big rivers, hundreds of miles of levees protect people and property. But when water surged into the Missouri River in March, the levees crumbled — exposing an aging, insufficient flood protection system. The flow, capacity and management of the river has changed a lot since Adams was a kid, he says, but the 50-year-old levees haven’t. And they're not up to the challenge.


Last month’s floods were the most intense the Army Corps of Engineers has ever seen in the Midwest. "It's immense," Bret Budd, Army Corps of Engineers Chief of the Omaha District Systems Restoration Team, told VICE News. "It's a biblical flood for us. It is going to tax the resources of everybody around. We have over 500 miles of levee to provide to reduce the risk of flooding. Of those 500 miles, we had over 50 breaches."

The Corps has been scrambling to patch the broken levees before the rivers rise again — but gaping holes are still unfilled. For now, they’re only able to put temporary fixes in place anyway, so the Corps looking into redesigning their flood control systems to adapt with the changing landscape.

In 1936 Congress assigned the task of flood protection on to the Army Corps of Engineers. It built levees, dikes and dams along thousands of miles of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The levees stopped flooding but made the rivers straighter, deeper, and more powerful — which contributed to a 20% increase in the risk of a 100-year flood.

So building higher barriers as climate change brings heavier rainfall could make future flooding worse.

This segment originally aired April 11, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.