In interviews, some local managers disputed their "unacceptable" ratings, saying their levees were sound, if not perfect.
Bill Sheppard, assistant chief engineer for the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee Board, noted that none of its levees failed during severe flooding in spring of 2011. "Our system works," he said. "Does it have components that need to be fixed after this flood? Absolutely. But if you look at the levee evaluation reports, you'd think, 'Oh Lord, run for the hills.'"
A number of local managers blame their "unacceptable" ratings on the Corps taking a harder line on compliance with levee construction, operation and maintenance standards.
"Since Katrina, they're almost hyper-vigilant," said John Sachi, city engineer for South St. Paul. "It's almost like they're remedying their mistakes from the past by putting the onus on us to make sure things get better."
Sachi said South St. Paul is spending $2.5 million to replace an outdated pumping station and correct other deficiencies.
The Corps' Halpin agreed that levees covered by the agency's safety program mostly held their own during some of the heaviest flooding on record in 2011, which caused an estimated $9 billion in damage. But that doesn't mean inspectors are overstating the system's flaws, Halpin said, noting that some communities escaped catastrophe only after heroic efforts to shore up levees more than half a century old.
"That is not acceptable performance," he said.
A number of local officials said they would happily upgrade their levees — if they could afford it. "There is no money available. There's no way we could raise even a 25 percent match if they covered the rest of it," said Askew, Brookport's mayor.
A concrete floodwall about 10 feet high tops the section nearest the Brookport business district. Askew said the levee proved itself during the 2011 flood, when the town was mostly spared as the river swirled within a couple of feet of the top. The mayor figures the government should pay for about $2 million in upgrades.