A Senate Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery and Intergovernmental Affairs hearing on Tuesday afternoon assessed disaster response and recovery efforts from the aftermath of the 2011 spring storms, tornadoes and floods. Mike Womack, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), was among those testifying.

While saluting MEMA’s proficient coordination with local and federal agencies, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran also asked if the federal government needed to “go back to the drawing board” to improve flood protection for Mississippi River tributaries and streams that overran their banks during the spring floods.

“This recent flooding confirmed the fact that the Mississippi River is huge and that we have invested a lot of money in protecting the adjoining landowners and people who live in the region from the flooding of the Mississippi River,” Cochran said. “The levees and flood control structures on the main river worked so well that most damages were caused by backwater flooding—small streams and tributaries that lead into the Mississippi River.

“The situation prompts me to question whether or not we need to go back to the drawing board to see what could be done to protect more people from this kind of disaster.”

Womack, whose testimony focused on lessons learned from Mississippi’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina and 20 other federal disasters over the past decade, agreed that personal and economic losses could be reduced with greater attention to flood control on tributaries and streams.

“I think we do need to continue to look at what we could do to further protect those smaller streams such as the Yazoo River and the tributaries,” Womack said. “A lot of the flooding did not occur on the mainline Mississippi but on these smaller rivers that do have some limited flood controls structures but not enough to protect the citizens.

“I don’t think the system is broken, but it certainly needs a few modifications.  There are flood control structures on the Yazoo Basin, but they do not protect all of the basin. There are not pumps that pump out the water that collects behind those flood control structures. It’s not just Mississippi that has this problem. Other states have it, as well.”

For more, see Womack’s submitted testimony

Backwater pumps designed as part of the Yazoo Backwater Project were administratively vetoed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008. Had the project been fully functional, it has been estimated that the backwater flooding this spring in the Yazoo Basin would have been lowered four feet -- reducing damage to farmland and homes in the region. Pending litigation challenges the EPA for wrongfully using an administrative veto to cancel the backwater pump project.

The Yazoo Backwater Project was authorized by Congress in 1941 as an important flood control project for the lower Mississippi Delta, a region that continues to be troubled with wastewater pollution and property damage from flooding.

In his testimony before the subcommittee, Womack discussed recent MEMA actions to assist Mississippians affected by tornadoes, severe storms and flooding that occurred in April and Mississippi River flooding that occurred in May. The state received two federal major disaster declarations for these calamities.

Womack also cited activities in Mississippi to better prepare the state for future disasters, including the state’s “A Safe Place to Go” initiative that reimburses residents or governments for a portion of saferoom or storm shelter installation costs.

“While we plan for repairing and rebuilding following our current disasters, we have already begun to incorporate the lessons from previous disasters to rebuild better,” Womack said. “Mississippi has seen many disasters in the last decade, some catastrophic on the local level and one catastrophic to the state, region and nation. We Mississippians are proud to say that we have used our resources and those provided to us by the nation to rebuild using proven mitigation and stringent code standard measures to build a much safer and resilient state.”