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Improving flood preparedness using hydrodynamic levee-breach

and inundation modelling: Middle Mississippi River, USA
F. Huthoff1, J.W.F. Remo2 and N. Pinter3
1 Rivers and Coasts Group, HKV Consultants, Lelystad, The Netherlands
2 Department of Geography, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, USA
3 Department of Geology, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, USA

Correspondence Abstract
Dr. Fredrik Huthoff, Rivers and Coasts
Group, HKV Consultants, Botter 1129, There is growing concern in the United States over the ‘residual’ flood risk
8232 JN Lelystad, The Netherlands behind leveed floodplains, which is commonly assessed based on one-
Email: huthoff@hkv.nl dimensional (1D) river flow models. These models fail to capture the complex
flow dynamics that typically characterise floodplain inundation. Here, we dem-
DOI: 10.1111/jfr3.12066 onstrate methodologies for mechanistically simulating a levee breach and flow
into a levee district along the Middle Mississippi River using a hybrid 1D/two-
Key words dimensional (1D2D) flow model that combines a 1D model of the river channel
Dam breach; flood mapping; flood
with a two-dimensional (2D) overland-flow model for the leveed floodplain.
preparedness; floodplain inundation;
Mississippi River.
This 2D modelling documents the complexity of flow over a large and topo-
graphically diverse leveed floodplain, including distribution and timing of
inundation as well as the resulting public-safety threats. In relation to safety
threats, three distinct flood phases can be recognised: (1) a flash flood phase, (2)
a flow redistribution phase and (3) an equilibrium phase. The flash flood phase
presents imminent threats to human life and safety, whereas subsequent phases
determine inundation areas and depths, and therefore infrastructure damages.
2D modelling of levee-breach flooding provides input data necessary for: (1)
specific local evacuation and mitigation planning in the Metro East area, and (2)
methodologies for analyses of residual risk facing other levee-protected flood-
plain areas.

Introduction tained levee systems, has led to efforts to officially recognise

this ‘residual risk’ of inundation in public policy and policy
An estimated 160 000 km of levees have been constructed tools such as the US National Flood Insurance Program
on US floodplains, protecting tens of millions of people (ASFPM, 2007; NCLS, 2011). Simulation studies of flood
[National Committee on Levee Safety (NCLS), 2009]. events may help in identifying crucial flood processes during
Following the catastrophic failure and/or overtopping of a levee failure or overtopping event, crucial information for
floodwalls in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005, US Congress guiding evacuation planning, and other emergency response
passed the National Levee Safety Act as part of the Water and mitigation strategies.
Resources Development Act of 2007. This Act authorised This study presents results of hydrodynamic flood simu-
the development of a nationwide inventory of levees and lations for the Metro East Sanitary District (MESD), which is
enhanced and systematised inspection of many levees situated along the Illinois floodplain of the Middle Missis-
(Federally authorised levees and those participating in the sippi River, opposite the St. Louis, Missouri metropolitan
Federal Rehabilitation and Inspection Program). Subse- area. The MESD levees protect an estimated 57 000 residents
quent inspections nationwide have shown that the condition and were designed to the 1/500-year standard (probability of
of US levees varies widely, and the American Society of Civil recurrence estimated at once per 500 years or 0.002% annual
Engineers estimates 5-year costs of levee rehabilitation at $50 exceedance probability). MESD is one of five levee districts
billion (ASCE, 2009), including up to $30 billion in the state on the Illinois floodplain opposite St. Louis where significant
of California alone (NCLS, 2009). deficiencies were identified, initiating both local and
There is growing recognition that flood risk exists not national debates regarding flood-hazard mapping, residual
only in unprotected floodplain areas but also in areas behind risk and flood-insurance requirements behind levees under-
levees. Recognition of limitations, even for the best main- going repairs.

© 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18
Hydrodynamic levee-breach and inundation modelling 3

Failure or overtopping of large man-made levees can be Table 1 Hydrological conditions for the 1/20 year and the 1/500-
catastrophic events that trigger both significant geomorphic year flood at St. Louis gage (RM179.60)

change as well as damage to infrastructure, or even fatalities, Water level

during inundation of the floodplain behind the failed levee Exceedance Discharge UMRSFFS
probability Recurrence m3/s m
(e.g. Izenberg et al., 1996; Magilligan et al., 1998; Rogers,
2009). Although the large majority of applied flood-hazard 5% 1/20 years 21 000 128.32
modelling in the United States is done using one- 0.2% 1/500 years 31 700 131.22

dimensional (1D) models, the nature of 1D simulation – RM179.60, River Mile 179.60; UMRSFFS, Upper Mississippi River System
involving flow orthogonal between all cross-sections – is Flow Frequency Study.
incapable of capturing the complex patterns and timing of
floodplain flow (e.g. Chatterjee et al., 2008; Cook and Table 2 Locations of representative stations in the levee cell
Merwade, 2009; Meitzen, 2011). This study applied method-
ID Description Easting (m) Northing (m) H (m)
ologies for simulating levee failures and the resulting flood-
HisN Station North 750 528 4 296 529 126.50
plain inundation, including sensitivities analyses testing the
HisC Station Central 745 786 4 285 873 126.49
effects of levee erodibility and of floodplain topography and
HisS Station South 746 837 4 277 293 126.50
roughness. This modelling documents the complexity of
flow after a levee breach and provides estimates of flood
arrival times and maximum flood depths and other infor- within the levee cell, we also picked three representative sta-
mation necessary for identifying disaster response and miti- tions to characterise flooding in the northern, central and
gation strategies. southern part of the area (see Table 2 for coordinates; differ-
ent from the three breach locations). These three stations
were chosen at similar surface elevations of around 126.5 m.
Study area
The MESD levee system is about 32 km from north to south
and up to 13 km east to west. The levee system lies along the Methods
eastern bank of the Mississippi River and runs from River The flood simulations in this study were hybrid 1D/two-
Mile 195 (RM195) in the north to RM174 in the south. The dimensional (1D2D) model runs implemented with the
main hydrological measurement stations on this part of the SOBEK software package (Deltares System, 2011; see also
Mississippi are at Hartford (RM196.8), St. Louis (RM179.6) Verwey, 2001). SOBEK is an integrated software package for
and at Engineers Depot (RM176.8). At the St. Louis gage, the river, urban and rural water management that combines a
Upper Mississippi River Flow Frequency Study (UMRFFS) 2D overland flow module with a 1D channel flow module to
estimates a 500-year flood elevation of 131.22 m [U.S. Army simulate conditions in a hybrid 1D2D mode. The flow cal-
Corps of Engineers (USACE), 2004a; Table 1]. The estimated culations in SOBEK are based on the Saint-Venant equa-
discharge at St. Louis that corresponds with this water level is tions, which represent the spatially averaged momentum
31 700 m3/s (Table 1). The levees around the MESD are balance and mass conservation of flows in unsteady and
designed with a protection level up to this 500-year flood. nonuniform settings. In the current study, we make use of
However, if a levee breach were to occur, most of the Metro the hybrid 1D2D mode by coupling a 1D channel flow
East levee cell would become flooded as ground elevations module for the Mississippi River with a 2D flow module
are below the 500-year flood elevation (<131.2 m) in the within the Metro East levee cell. The coupling between the
most of the MESD. two flow modules takes place at predefined levee-breach
Three levee breach locations were selected for the flood connection points, where a breach development function
scenarios to approximately bracket potential inundation governs how much water from the flood wave in the Missis-
impacts in the levee system (Figure 1): sippi is transferred into the levee cell. Further details on the
1. A breach at the north end of the levee cell (RM 194.5), setup of the 1D and 2D flow modules, on the flood wave, and
2. A breach near the centre of the levee cell (RM 183.5), and on the levee-breach function are provided in the following
3. A breach at the south end of the levee cell (RM 178.5). sections.
These breach locations were chosen to capture extremes
in flood impact as related to the potential geographical loca-
Hydrological conditions
tions of the levee breach. Additional extremes in inundation
impacts were investigated by varying the key breach-erosion In any levee-breach simulation, the hydrological conditions
parameter (critical velocity vcrit, see Dam-break modeling at the start of the flood must be specified. The Metro East
section) and floodplain land cover (floodplain roughness, levee cell has a protection standard of 1/500 years. Therefore,
see Model development section). To evaluate flood evolution we selected the 500-year discharge – 31 700 m3/s – of the

J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18 © 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
4 Huthoff et al.

Figure 1 The study area showing breach locations and three representative flood stations in the levee cell.

Table 3 The three breach locations together with flood water levels as reported in the UMRSFFS (USACE 2004a) and the water levels from
the SOBEK model used in this study
Discharge Water level
Breach location Flood event m /s UMRSFFS (m) SOBEK (m)
North (RM194.5) 1/20 years 21 000 130.45 130.13
1/500 years 31 700 133.50 133.60
Central (RM183.5) 1/20 years 21 000 129.02 128.46
1/500 years 31 700 132.19 132.10
South (RM178.5) 1/20 years 21 000 128.14 127.54
1/500 years 31 700 131.00 131.20

RM, River Mile; UMRSFFS, Upper Mississippi River System Flow Frequency Study.

Mississippi River at the study site, as calculated in the Upper was used here (Table 3). Next, the shape of the flood
Mississippi River System Flow Frequency Study (UMRSFFS; hydrograph was defined based on the shape of the flood
USACE, 2004a). Note that Pinter (2010) found that wave near St. Louis in July–August 1993 (Figure 2). After the
31 700 m3/s represents a significant underestimate of the peak discharge on August 1st of 1993, discharge dropped
actual 500-year flow, but the current regulatory flow volume over the next 9 days at a maximum rate of ∼1400 m3/s per

© 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18
Hydrodynamic levee-breach and inundation modelling 5

Figure 2 Flood wave used in the simulation based on the historical 1993 flood wave measured at the St. Louis gage.

day. We constructed a model flood wave that starts at calculation module. This module estimates breach charac-
31 700 m3/s (∼500-year level), maintains this peak discharge teristics based on levee strength and flow conditions present
for 2 days after the levee breach and then drops by 1400 m3/s near the breach opening, and this approach has become the
per day thereafter. Table 1 provides an overview of the flow technical standard in studies in the Netherlands (e.g.
conditions used in the flood simulations here. As a validation Leenders et al., 2007; van Mierlo et al., 2007; Van Mierlo
of the 1D model, estimated water levels from the UMRSFFS et al., 2008; Markus et al., 2010). Saucier et al. (2009) point
were compared with the corresponding values from the out that this method has the practical advantage that it con-
SOBEK model. These water levels for the 500-year event verges to a sensible maximum breach size. The breach cal-
were only 10 cm apart (Table 3). culation module is based on work by Verheij (2002) and
A reference SOBEK simulation run without inclusion of a requires specification of an initial breach width, an initial
levee breach shows that the travel time of a flood wave along breach timescale and a critical velocity, the latter represent-
the Mississippi River channel (outside the levee) from the ing the levee’s resistance against flow erosion. The standard
northern breach to the central breach is approximately 2 h recommended value for the initial breach width is 10 m, and
and ∼2.5 h to reach the southern breach location. These the initial breach timescale should be short compared with
travel times were used in selecting the start-of-breach time the duration of the flood wave. We have chosen 1 h for the
for the flood wave as shown in Figure 2. breach timescale, which is much shorter than the 2-day peak
of the considered flood wave (see Figure 2). Within this first
hour of breach development, the breach has a constant width
Dam-break modeling
of 10 m, and the base of the breach opening linearly drops to
There are two ways to model a levee breach in SOBEK1D2D. the height of the land behind the levee. From that time
One is a user-defined approach, in which maximum breach forward, the breach grows laterally in size based on the cal-
widths, heights and growth rate of the breach opening culated flow velocity in the breach and based on the defined
are defined by the modeller. The second approach in critical flow velocity. We adopted a value of 0.5 m/s for the
SOBEK1D2D uses an automated levee-breach calculation critical flow velocity (vcrit), which is the recommended value
module. Without availability of empirical data to manually for a clay-type levee (for sand a critical velocity of 0.3 m/s is
define the levee breaches, we employed the SOBEK breach- recommended; Verheij, 2002). To make sure that no water

J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18 © 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
6 Huthoff et al.

enters the levee cell before moment of breach, initial crest Table 4 Land-cover types and associated Manning’s n roughness
level heights were set at least 0.6 m above the 1/500-year values

water level. Land cover Manning’s n Reference

Agriculture 0.100 Ree and Crow (1977)
Developed 0.110 Remo and Pinter (2007)
Model development Forest 0.150 Arcement and Schneider (1989)
For this investigation, the Mississippi River was modelled Grass/forbs 0.040 Chow (1959)
Marsh 0.160 Tsihrintzis and Madiedo (2000)
using SOBEK’s 1D channel flow hydraulic module, and the
Open water 0.040 Chow (1959)
filling of the floodplain after the levee breach was modelled Sand/mud 0.040 Chow (1959)
using SOBEK’s 2D overland flow module. The parameters
for the 1D model were imported from the existing USACE
thus identified 20 floodplain bridges and culverts, which we
Hydrologic Engineering Center’s River Analysis System
then included in the SOBEK model (see Figure 1 for location
(HEC-RAS) model constructed for the UMRSFFS (USACE,
of bridges and culverts). The dimensions for these structures
2004a). After completion of the flow frequency study, the
were determined using the USDOT database.
USACE computed a floodway for the Upper Mississippi
We employed the USGS’s Upper Midwest Environmental
River by converting hydraulic data from the Corps’ UNET
Sciences Center (UMESC) (2002) land-cover data to esti-
model (1-dimensional Unsteady flow through a NETwork of
mate hydraulic roughness (Manning’s n) on the floodplain.
open channels) to HEC-RAS format (USACE, 2004b). The
We rasterised the UMESC land-cover data file and then
Upper Mississippi River Floodway Computation (UMRFC)
extracted the land-cover type for each of the 2D grid cells
was a steady-flow HEC-RAS model that was constructed
(Figure 3). Then, using the land-cover classification, we
and calibrated to the 100-year UMRSFFS profile (USACE,
assigned an appropriate n value for each grid cell (Table 4).
2004a). The original UMRFC model for the Mississippi
Finally, we exported the full 2D array of Manning’s n values
River through the USACE St. Louis District was shortened
into SOBEK.
for this investigation to the reach from Missouri River con-
Our model had three boundary conditions: (1) an
fluence to Chester, IL (Figure 1). The HEC-RAS model was
upstream discharge boundary near the confluence of the
then imported into SOBEK 1D2D.
Mississippi and Missouri Rivers (RM195.55), (2) a down-
The 2D overland flow module used for floodplain inun-
stream boundary at Chester, IL (RM109.9), and (3) lateral
dation here required input data for three key parameters: (1)
inflow for the addition of the Meramec River at RM160.71.
floodplain topography, (2) the location and dimensions of
For the upstream boundary, a discharge hydrograph was
bridges and culverts on the floodplain, and (3) land cover for
employed (see Hydrologic Conditions section for details).
estimation of hydraulic roughness. Elevation data were from
For the downstream boundary, a fixed water-surface eleva-
United States Geologic Survey (USGS) (2011) 1/9- and 1/3-
tion was used. Because of the large distance of the down-
arc-second digital elevation models (DEMs). The higher
stream boundary from the study area here, the static
resolution 1/9-arc-second DEM was only available for
downstream boundary condition did not affect the model
approximately the northern ∼25% of the MESD. In the rest
results near the MESD. A fixed discharge equal to mean
of the levee cell, the 1/3-arc-second DEM was used. From
annual flow was employed for the lateral inflow representing
these data, DEMs were subsampled to grid-cell sizes of 25, 50
the Meramec River in the model.
and 100 m for use within SOBEK. Because of the elevation
averaging that can occur when higher resolution DEMs are
resampled to larger grid-cell sizes, we sampled key linear
features that would act as obstructions to flood flows, includ-
ing levees, road embankments and railroad grades. These
Effects of grid-cell size
features were checked and corrected at their crest elevations
to ensure these key features were represented as realistically Preliminary flood simulations were carried out using three
as possible in the DEMs (note that these crest heights were different grid sizes in order to establish an appropriate grid-
necessarily modelled at the chosen horizontal resolution of cell size for the remainder of the study. Using grid-cell sizes
25, 50 or 100 m). For other portions of the floodplain, the of 25 × 25 m, 50 × 50 m and 100 × 100 m, the characteristics
high-resolution DEMs were subsampled using an averaging of the inundation event are shown in Figures 4 and 5, using
algorithm. the central breach as an example. Figure 4 shows that the
After the construction of the DEMs, we used the U.S. breach characteristics using the 25 × 25 m and 50 × 50 m
Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) (2007) bridge grids are practically identical, but the 100 × 100 m grid leads
database to identify bridges and culverts (openings beneath to a significantly smaller discharge through the breach
elevated roadways) that could act as conduits for flow. We opening [Figure 4(d)]. At the three representative stations in

© 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18
Hydrodynamic levee-breach and inundation modelling 7

Figure 3 Land cover within the Metro East Sanitary District (data from UMESC, 2002).

the levee cell, Figure 5 shows that simulated water depths extensive floodplains having widths of order kilometres. It
were almost equal using the 25 × 25 m or 50 × 50 m grids, thus seems that for such situations, a 50 m cell size may be
but again, the 100 × 100 m grid produces significantly dif- generally acceptable.
ferent results.
Apparently, increasing the grid-cell size from 50 to 100 m
Breach characteristics
loses some important terrain properties in the DEM and the
resulting flood simulation. In contrast, going from a 50 m Figure 6 shows flood depths at the three levee breach loca-
grid to 25 m added more detail to the flood simulation tions. The breach initiates at 1.0 day of simulation time. It
without changing the simulated flood characteristics or out- can be seen that the crest level of the levee drops (is eroded)
comes. Another practical constraint to consider when choos- down to the base elevation behind the levee within 1 h after
ing an appropriate grid-cell size is the calculation time of the initiation of the breach. The water-level difference between
simulation. For the modelling here, using a desktop com- upstream and downstream of the breach (‘water level up’ –
puter with Intel Core i7 3.4 GHz processor, the simulation ‘water level down’) largely determines the flow velocity in the
with a 25 × 25 m grid took more than 4 days, the 50 × 50 m opening and thereby how the breach develops and how
grid less than 1 day and the 100 × 100 m grid only a couple much water flows into the levee cell.
of hours. Therefore, to limit computation time but to still get For the northern breach [Figure 6(a)], a water-level dif-
reliable simulation results, the remainder of this study was ference is still evident even after 12 days of simulation time,
carried out using the 50 × 50 m grid. Note that Hesselink indicating that water was still flowing into the levee cell at
et al. (2003) and Chatterjee et al. (2008) also found that a that time. For the central and southern breach locations, the
50 × 50 m grid-cell size was appropriate in their flood simu- water-level difference approached zero after 8 days and flow
lations. The considered cases in those works were quite dif- into the levee cell came to a (near) stop [Figure 6(b) and
ferent from the MESD, but they also included rivers with 6(c)]. For the southern breach scenario, the flow even

J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18 © 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
8 Huthoff et al.

(a) Breach Flow Velocity (b) Breach Width

8 80
7 100 m grid
50 m grid
25 m grid 60
Velocity (m/s)

Width (m)
3 40
−2 0
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Time (days) Time (days)

(c) Breach Flow Area (d) Breach Discharge

300 1400

Discharge (m3/s) 1000
Area (m2)

150 600


0 −200
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Time (days) Time (days)
Figure 4 Modelled levee breach characteristics for the central breach scenario using grid-cell sizes of 25, 50 and 100 m.

station North station Central station South

4 4 4
3.5 100 m grid 3.5 3.5
50 m grid
3 25 m grid 3 3
2.5 2.5 2.5
Depth (m)

Depth (m)

Depth (m)

2 2 2
1.5 1.5 1.5
1 1 1
0.5 0.5 0.5
0 0 0
0 2 4 6 8 10 12 0 2 4 6 8 10 12 0 2 4 6 8 10 12
Time after breach (days) Time after breach (days) Time after breach (days)
Figure 5 Flood depths over time for three grid-cell sizes using the central breach scenario (evaluated at three representative stations in
the levee cell; see Table 2).

© 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18
Hydrodynamic levee-breach and inundation modelling 9

(a) Relative heights, breach North

7 Crest level
6 Water level up
Depth (m)

5 Water level down

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Time (days)
(b) Relative heights, breach Central
Depth (m)

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Time (days)
(c) Relative heights, breach South
Depth (m)

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Time (days)
Figure 6 Water depths at the three levee breach locations.

reversed after about 8.5 days [Figure 6(c)]. Figure 7(d) ern and central scenarios had higher land behind those
further shows that discharge into the levee cell after 11 days breaches, leading to smaller heights of the breach opening of
was ∼0 for the central breach scenario. In contrast, for the around 5.5 m [Figure 6(a); Figure 6(b)].
southern breach scenario, about 550 m3/s flowed back into
the Mississippi channel after day 11, while for the northern
Flood development at representative stations
breach scenario still about 280 m3/s was flowing into the
levee cell. The development of the inundation in the levee cell follows
In terms of breach widths, the northern breach grew wider a complex 2D pattern, as governed by local topographical
than 70 m, while the other two breaches grew to widths of and land cover characteristics. Results of the inundation
about 60 m [Figure 7(b)]. The large breach width at the simulation for the northern breach scenario are shown in
northern location was due to the terrain behind the breach Figure 8, depicting the situation at 1 and 4 days after
location, which allowed water to easily enter into the levee moment of the levee breach. Because of the difficulty to
cell. As a result, the flow velocity in the northern breach extract general flood characteristics from such complex flow
was high [Figure 7(a)], promoting breach erosion. Note, patterns, we present results of the simulated flood character-
however, that the breach flow area was greatest for the south- istics at the three selected stations in the levee cell for the
ern breach location [Figure 7(c)] because of the relatively three breach scenarios.
low lying to land behind the breach [Figure 6(c)]. As a result, In addition to considering the flood arrival times and
the height of the breach opening was about 6 m. The north- maximum water depths, we also review flood development

J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18 © 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
10 Huthoff et al.

(a) Breach Flow Velocity (b) Breach Width

8 80
7 Breach N
6 Breach C
Breach S 60
Velocity (m/s)

4 50

Width (m)
1 30
0 20
−3 0
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Time (days) Time (days)

(c) Breach Flow Area (d) Breach Discharge

Discharge (m3/s)
Area (m2)

200 900

150 600
0 −600
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Time (days) Time (days)
Figure 7 Breach development and flow characteristics at the three breach locations: North (N), Central (C) and South (S).

over time. Following levee overtopping or failure, three char- ultaneous changes in water depths over the entire levee
acteristic flood phases can be distinguished (see Figure 9): cell (as in the filling or emptying of a bathtub). Note that
1. A first ‘flash flood’ phase, characterised by arrival of a in Figure 9, this phase is indicated for the conditions that
flood front and then a rapid rise in water depths and flow velocity is nearly zero and that water depth remains
relatively high flow velocities. constant. This latter condition (constant depth) need not
2. A second ‘filling’ or ‘redistribution’ phase follows the flash always be satisfied in phase 3, for example if the levee cell
flood phase and is associated with inundated areas at has continuing inflow or outflow (see, for example,
higher elevations conveying flow to areas at lower eleva- Figure 12).
tion. In this phase, flow velocities are nonzero but much Figure 10 shows flow depths and flow velocities for the
lower than in the first phase because lower elevation loca- northern breach scenario at the three stations (North,
tions already have water on them, which impedes subse- Central and South). Results for the central and southern
quent flow. The shapes of the depth and velocity curves breach scenarios are shown in Figures 11 and 12. It is note-
vary broadly depending on the inflow rate at the breach worthy that apart from in the direct vicinity of the breach,
and (local) floodplain topography. the maximum water depths for the central breach scenario
3. A third ‘equilibrium’ or ‘bathtub’ phase, in which water has were lower than for the northern and southern breaches.
already moved into all low-lying regions of the levee cell These reduced water depths compared with the other
and has become practically stagnant. During this phase, simulations were due to the small total volumes of water
discharges into or out of the levee cell cause almost sim- that entered the levee cell in the central breach scenario

© 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18
Hydrodynamic levee-breach and inundation modelling 11

Figure 8 Floodplain inundation 1 and 4 days after breach for the northern breach scenario. Red dots mark connections of subgrid model
elements such as bridges and culverts.

5 1 away from the breach because of spreading of the flood

Velocity front. The considered stations in Figures 10–12 were all
4 Phase 1 0.8 located at least 700 m away from the breach (see Table 6).
Phase 2 In the three breach scenarios, the flow velocities at these
Velocity (m/s)

Phase 3 stations reached maximum values of 0.15–0.35 m/s. The

Depth (m)

3 0.6
highest flow velocities occurred at the station closest to the
breach, although high flow velocities also occurred locally
2 0.4
throughout the levee cell in regions of converging flow.
The three flood phases at the chosen stations varied in
1 0.2 timing and effects depending on the location of the levee
breach relative to locations within the levee cell.
0 0 For the northern breach simulation (Figure 10):
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Time after breach (days) 1. The first flood phase (flash flood phase) occurs after 2 h at
the northern levee station, after 118 h (∼5 days) at the
Figure 9 Sketch to illustrate typical flow depths and velocities
central station and after 169 h (∼7 days) at the southern
during the three flood phases: (1) flash flood phase, (2) redistri-
bution phase and (3) equilibrium phase. station. The average travel speed of the flood front
decreased from north to south within the levee cell
because of dispersal of the flood front. At the northern
(Figure 7). Only locations in the direct vicinity of the central and central stations, the first flood phase lasted about
breach got higher flood levels in the first two phases of the 8–12 h after which flow velocities decreased by about
flood (compare Figure 11 with Figure 10 and Figure 12). 50%. It is noteworthy that the first flood phase in the
For all breach scenarios, the maximum flow velocities southern part of the levee cell lasted much longer (about
at the breach can reach magnitudes up to 6 m/s [see 1 day longer) because of flow convergence from different
Figure 7(a)], but these quickly reduce at locations further parts of the levee cell.

J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18 © 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
12 Huthoff et al.

Breach location: North Breach location: North

5 0.4
4.5 station North (N) station North (N)
station Central (C) 0.35 station Central (C)
4 station South (S) station South (S)

Velocity (m/s)
Depth (m)

2.5 0.2
2 0.15
Phase 3
0.5 0.05
0 0
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Time after breach (days) Time after breach (days)
Figure 10 Depths and flow velocities for the northern breach scenario as observed at stations in the north (N), centre (C) and southern
(S) stations of the levee cell.

Breach location: Central Breach location: Central

5 0.4
4.5 station North (N) station North (N)
station Central (C) 0.35 station Central (C)
4 station South (S) station South (S)
Velocity (m/s)

Depth (m)

2.5 Phase 3 0.2
2 0.15
0.5 0.05
0 0
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Time after breach (days) Time after breach (days)
Figure 11 Depths and flow velocities for the central breach scenario as observed at stations in the north (N), centre (C) and southern (S)
stations of the levee cell.

2. The second flood phase (inundation phase) lasted up to 8 5 h, after which flow velocities quickly declined. Interest-
days after the breach, after which flow velocities further ingly, the flood front arrived at the southern station at
decreased. Only in the northern part of the cell did redis- nearly the same time as it did for the northern breach
tribution of flow last another ∼2 days in response to con- (∼4.5 days after breach), even though the distance to the
tinued inflow at the breach. northern breach is much greater than to the central
3. The third flood phase (bathtub phase) occurred after ∼8 breach (20.8 versus 8.2 km). The reason for this delayed
days for most parts of the levee cell when the water arrival of the flood front at the southern station during
reached all low-lying regions. Note the continuing simul- the central breach scenario is that locally elevated terrain
taneous rise in water depths at the central and southern shields the southern station from flooding until a thresh-
stations because of continued inflow at the breach. old inundation depth has been reached. A similar effect is
For the central breach simulation (Figure 11): also observed around the central station where higher
1. The flood front arrived ∼6 h after the breach at the central topography diverts initial flow away from that location.
station, which was located about 700 m away from the Another interesting observation in the central breach sce-
breach location. Here, the first flood phase lasted about nario is that the flash flood phase at the northern station

© 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18
Hydrodynamic levee-breach and inundation modelling 13

Breach location: South Breach location: South

5 0.4
4.5 station North (N) station North (N)
station Central (C) 0.35 station Central (C)
4 station South (S) station South (S)

Velocity (m/s)
Depth (m)

Phase 3
2.5 0.2
2 0.15
0.5 0.05
0 0
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Time after breach (days) Time after breach (days)
Figure 12 Depths and flow velocities for the southern breach scenario as observed at stations in the north (N), central (C) and southern
(S) stations of the levee cell.

Table 5 Inundation characteristics of the three breach scenarios evaluated at the three selected stations
Distance to breach (km) Max. depth (m) Flood arrival time, start phase 1 (h) Start phase 3 (h)
Station N C S N C S N C S All stations
Breach N 1.2 12.8 20.8 4.71 2.52 2.51 2 51 108 ∼190 (∼8 days)
Breach C 12.4 0.7 8.2 1.76 3.56 1.76 118 6 108 ∼210 (∼9 days)
Breach S 20.0 8.7 1.0 2.26 2.33 2.33 169 105 8 ∼190 (∼8 days)

N, North; C, Central; S, South.

is associated with rather low flow velocities. This is due to breach location. Also, average travel speeds of the flood front
the topography north of the central breach, which shows decreased at locations further away from breach because of
a gentle increase in floodplain elevations moving north- dispersal of the flood front.
wards. Water flowing from the central breach to the
northern part of the cell is largely travelling uphill, result-
Sensitivity of inundation results to
ing in a decrease in flow velocity.
model parameters
2. The second flood phase is practically absent at the north-
ern station (note the low flow velocitites). At the central A typical shortcoming of flood simulation studies for
station, redistribution of flow lasted about 8 days. extreme flood events is the lack of validation data, which is
3. The third flood phase occurred after ∼9 days (∼210 h) also the case in the current study. In order to assess the
when water levels equilibrated across the levee cell. reliability of the results presented here, the sensitivity of the
For the southern breach simulation (Figure 12): simulations and the results to input data and modelling
1. Arrival of the flood front at the southern station (1 km choices was assessed and quantified. Two key model compo-
away from the breach location) occurred ∼8 h after the nents in the flood simulation were associated with signifi-
breach and lasted about 24 h. The first flood phase lasted cant uncertainties: (1) hydraulic roughness of the land cover
only a few hours at the other two stations and smoothly (Table 4) and (2) the development and final dimensions of
transitioned to the second flood phase. the levee breach.
2. The second flood phase was marked by a sudden drop in First, the hydraulic roughness values used here, as in any
flow velocities and lasted until day 8. large-scale flood modelling study, have significant uncer-
3. The third flood phase occurred after day 8 (∼190 h) in tainty, in this case because the nine land-cover types in the
this scenario when water levels across the levee cell study area (UMESC, 2002) necessarily represents a simplifi-
equilibrated, changing approximately simultaneously cation of real-world land cover. Also, for land cover with
thereafter. relatively large roughness values (such as tall vegetation,
In Table 5, inundation characteristics at the three stations houses and fences), several studies have shown that Man-
are shown for each of the three breach scenarios. For each ning’s n value may change over time with changing flow
scenario, the maximum flood depth occurred near the depths (e.g. James et al., 2004; Green, 2005, 2006). Fixed n

J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18 © 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
14 Huthoff et al.

(a) Breach Flow Velocity (b) Breach Width

8 90
7 Ref 80
n −50%
6 70
n +50%
5 vcrit −50% 60
Velocity (m/s)

Width (m)
4 vcrit +50%
0 20
−1 10
−2 0
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Time (days) Time (days)

(c) Breach Flow Area (d) Breach Discharge

350 1800

300 1500
Discharge (m3/s)
250 1200
Area (m2)

200 900

150 600

100 300

50 0

0 −300
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Time (days) Time (days)
Figure 13 Sensitivity of breach development to variations in floodplain roughness (Manning’s n values) and critical velocity (vcrit; breach
erosion parameter) for the central breach scenario.

values are widely utilised but do not realistically describe It is important to note that the variations in floodplain
the full range of flood development from initial wetting to roughness also influence breach development. If the rough-
the final flood phase (Huthoff et al., 2007). We quantified the ness of the land immediately behind the breach is increased,
uncertainties of the outcomes of the flood simulations by water enters the breach more slowly and with less erosional
varying roughness values by ±50%. Higher roughness values energy. A lower erosion rate leads to a smaller breach
led to decreases in flow velocities and thus longer flood opening and subsequently to a smaller volume of water and
arrival times; the opposite was true for lower roughness lower maximum flood depths in the levee cell. Conversely,
values. lower floodplain roughness values increase inflow at the
The second major source of uncertainty was the size of the breach opening and lead to greater maximum flood depths.
levee breach. Breach size was modelled using a deterministic Therefore, a decrease in floodplain roughness has the same
algorithm, as described in the Methods section. The breach effect on breach development as lower elevations behind the
calculation depends on the flow velocity in the levee breach levee; in both cases, the water through the breach flows more
and on a predefined critical flow velocity that represents rapidly and therefore leading to greater total flood volumes
the levee’s susceptibility to erosion. We varied this critical and depths within the levee cell.
velocity value by ±50% (reference vcrit = 0.5 m/s) to bracket The chosen variations in floodplain roughness and critical
potential flood impacts und significant differences in breach velocity had quite different impacts on breach development,
development. most notably seen in the final breach widths (see Figure 13),

© 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18
Hydrodynamic levee-breach and inundation modelling 15

(a) Sensitivity to floodplain roughness (b) Sensitivity to critical velocity

5 5
station North (N)
station Central (C)
4 station South (S)
Depth (m)

Depth (m)
3 3

2 2

1 1

0 0
0 2 4 6 8 10 12 0 2 4 6 8 10 12
Time after breach (days) Time after breach (days)
Figure 14 Sensitivity of flood depths to (a) floodplain roughness and (b) critical velocities at the three stations for the central breach
scenario (dashed line: n or vcrit = −50%; dash-dot: n or vcrit = +50%).

Table 6 Sensitivity of inundation characteristics to floodplain roughness and breach erosion parameter (critical velocity vcrit) for the
central breach scenario
Flood arrival time, start
Breach Land cover Max. depth (m) phase 1 (h)
scenario roughness N C S N C S Start phase 3 (h)
Breach C n − 50% 2.35 3.33 2.35 81 6 85 ∼160 (∼7 days)
Breach C n ref 1.76 3.56 1.76 118 6 108 ∼210 (∼9 days)
Breach C n + 50% 1.12 3.67 1.18 160 6 136 ∼260 (∼11 days)
Breach C vcrit − 50% 2.31 3.76 2.31 90 6 80 ∼165 (∼7 days)
Breach C vcrit ref 1.76 3.56 1.76 118 6 108 ∼210 (∼9 days)
Breach C vcrit + 50% 1.10 3.40 1.36 150 6 140 ∼280 (12 days)

but had quite similar impacts on the inundation patterns in time remained practically the same at the central station
the levee cell. When land-cover roughness behind the central (∼6 h) for all roughness and critical velocity values tested.
levee breach was changed by ±50%, the resulting flow veloc- For locations farther away in the levee cell, the effects of
ities in the breach [Figure 13(a)] led to final breach widths changing land-cover roughness or critical velocity were
that varied from 50 to 75 m [Figure 13(b)] and maximum larger, as outlined as follows.
inflow rates from 900 to 1400 m3/s [Figure 13(d)]. A ±50%
change in critical velocity yielded breach widths between 45 Effects on flood arrival times (start of flash
and 87 m, and inflow rates between 900 and 1500 m3/s. For flood phase)
the lowered roughness values (n −50%) as well as for the
lowered critical velocity (vcrit −50%), the high inflow rate at Changes in breach opening and in land-cover roughness had
the breach filled up the levee cell to an extent that eventually large effects on flow velocities during the flash-flood phase
reversed flow in the breach after about 10 days [9 days after and thus on the arrival times of the flood wave at relatively
moment of breach; negative values in Figure 13(a) and distant locations in the levee cell (at locations several kilo-
Figure 13(d)]. metres away from breach). Flood arrival times at locations
Looking at the inundation characteristics at the three sta- 10 km away were reduced by 30% when Manning’s rough-
tions in the levee cell (Figure 14; Table 6), it can be seen that ness was reduced by 50% or if a 50% lower critical velocity
the sensitivity of flood depths to land-cover roughness or allowed a much larger breach opening (∼40 h, or almost 2
critical velocity was small near the breach location. Flood days, change in flood arrival time; see Table 6). Likewise,
depths varied at most 0.3 m at the central station (which was increasing roughness or vcrit by 50% increased flood arrival
located at 700 m from the breach). Also, the flood arrival times by 30%.

J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18 © 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
16 Huthoff et al.

Effects on equilibrium flood phase (start of the breach. In general, in areas near the breach, water
‘bathtub’ phase) levels drop during the second flood phase, whereas
water levels increase at locations farther away (several
The start of the equilibrium flood phase shifted together kilometres).
with flood arrival time. At locations 10 km away from the 3. The third flood phase is hydraulically the most easily
breach, increasing or decreasing surface roughness or understood and thus poses the least threat in terms of
critical-velocity values by ±50% changed the start of this unexpected flood effects in the levee cell. Flow velocities
flood phase by ±2 days (Table 6). are low, and water-level changes in the levee cell are
directly related to the inflow or outflow quantities at the
Effects on maximum flood levels levee breach.
The sensitivity analysis here showed that the start of the
The inflow velocity at the levee breach influences the growth three flood phases and the flow depths in each of phases are
of the breach and therefore determines the amount of water significantly affected by breach development and by changes
that enters the levee cell. Especially after day 3 (2 days after in floodplain land cover and associated roughness. For reli-
the breach; Figure 13), differences in the amount of water able predictions of potential flood events, accurate breach
entering the levee cell, relative to the reference situation, models and accurate land-cover roughness maps are impor-
became significant. This change in water volume may have tant. With respect to levee breach models, various research
large influences on flood development at more distant loca- efforts have led to different models, each associated with
tions in the levee cell. For example, flood development is large uncertainties in their predicted outcomes and each
quite different at the southern station 2 days after arrival of with apparent limited regions of applicability (e.g. Wahl,
the flood front, and maximum water levels varied by more 2004; Thornton et al., 2011). In our inundation study, we
than 1 m in the equilibrium phase (Figure 14). adopted just one of such empirically based breach-growth
functions but tried to capture a wide range of potential
inundation impacts by strongly varying the key input
Discussion parameter vcrit (variation ±50%). The range of outcomes
The MESD levee cell is large and topographically diverse, from this study can be narrowed if more information about
and 2D modelling shows complex patterns of floodplain the local geotechnical dike parameters are taken into account
flow following levee failure. Depending on the location of in conjunction with a levee breach model fitting to the situa-
the original breach, flow pathways and rates were strongly tion under investigation.
influenced by presence of roads, railways, flow conduits and Also, the sensitivity analysis showed that increased rough-
local topographic lows. These floodplain features lead to ness near the levee breach reduces flood damage in two ways.
local flow paths, which at times were perpendicular or even First, a higher roughness slows migration of the flood front,
opposite to channel flow. None of the complexity and details giving more time for emergency response measures in the
earlier would be simulated by a 1D model of the same area, entire levee cell. Second, higher roughness results in lower
underlining that inundation depths and extent based on 1D flow velocities in the breach, which leads to less erosion and,
modelling may not be realistic. hence, a smaller final breach opening. Because of the smaller
The 2D floodplain modelling here suggests a three-stage opening, less water will flow into the levee cell. Therefore,
classification of flood phases that may aid in identifying intentionally increasing land-cover roughness behind the
flood response and mitigation measures, including for levees, for example by planting trees, could be an effective
example evacuation planning in areas protected by levees. measure to mitigate the effects of a levee breach in a large
1. The first flood phase is associated with the greatest threat and high-risk leveed floodplain area.
to human populations as it is characterised by high flow
velocities and rapid increases in water depths. The arrival
time of the flood front is a crucial quantity for mitigating Conclusions
loss in this destructive flood phase. A complicating factor
in predicting arrival times is that travel times are func- This study showed that a DEM and hybrid 1D2D hydrody-
tions of breach characteristics and terrain properties of namic model can be used to realistically simulate a large-
the levee cell. The sensitivity analysis here showed that scale levee breach and subsequent inundation of a large
increased land-cover roughness or more sturdy levees can floodplain area. The modelling here was based on extensive
reduce flood arrival times. verification of the floodplain DEM, including manual cor-
2. During the second flood phase, water depths may rections for obstacles to flow such as highway and railroad
increase or decrease at a particular location depending on embankments as well as flow conduits such as embankment
the local elevation and the distance from that location to underpasses and bridges. Sensitivity analyses showed that

© 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18
Hydrodynamic levee-breach and inundation modelling 17

50 × 50 m resolution of topographic data is sufficient to and Bertus de Graaff from HKV Consultants for their tech-
resolve flood response, with little or no gain from smaller nical assistance with SOBEK.
grid-cell sizes. The flood simulation was sensitive to breach
characteristics and land-cover roughness, so that changing
levee erodibility and Manning’s n values impacted a broad
range of model results including arrival time of the flood
front and maximum inundation depths. Changes in flood- American Society of Civil Engineers [ASCE]. 2009 report card
plain roughness (50% change in Manning roughness) or for America’s infrastructure. Washington, DC: American
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© 2013 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd J Flood Risk Management 8 (2015) 2–18