Flood Fight: Army Corps to Blast Open Missouri Levee

In an attempt to save Cairo, Ill., farmland and 90 homes will be sacrified

May 2, 2011 — -- The Army Corps of Engineers has been ordered to activate explosions at the Birds Point, Mo., levee, which could save Cairo, Ill., from disastrous flooding, but at the cost of some of America's richest farmland.

"Public safety remains the No. 1 issue for the corps of engineers," Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said today during a news conference, announcing his decision to go forward with the project.

"[The Cairo levee] continues to be under enormous and unprecedented pressure," he said. "The Cairo gauge has gone up a foot and a half since yesterday. It's going to continue to rise."

The corps' explosives experts will blow a 2-mile hole in the levee sometime between 9 p.m. and midnight.

Once the explosives are detonated, Mississippi River water will flood 130,000 acres of prime farmland that includes about 90 homes. Army Corps spokesman Jim Pogue said letting water escape from the swollen river should "lower the Mississippi by anywhere from 3 to 7 feet."

The idea is to take pressure off other levees protecting Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, where river levels this week rose past a record set in 1937.

Cairo, whose population exceeded 15,000 in Mark Twain's day, is a ghost of what it was as a booming riverboat-era port town. The city currently has approximately 2,800 residents, most of whom have already evacuated, according to Mayor Judson Childs.

Missouri Farmers Outraged

Missouri farmers in the water's path are outraged by the decision. Bill Feezor, who farms 2,500 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans near Birds Point, said he fears the flooding.

"It will ruin my farm," he said. "This is my whole life."

Farmers such as Feezor worry about a toxic stew of diesel fuel, propane, fertilizer and pesticides that, they believe, will cover their land once river water rushes in.

Twenty-four hours after the first explosion, the corps plans to detonate more explosives at the southern end of the floodway to drain the water from the farmlands.

Missouri officials fought the move in court, but U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh, Jr.-- siding with Illinois and Kentucky -- ruled that the corps had the right to breach the levee to protect Cairo. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an emergency appeal from Missouri's attorney general.

For Cairo's mayor, the decision was "a no-brainer."

"What's more important, land or lives?" Childs said. "You can replace land. You can't replace lives."

Walsh today cautioned that this levee explosion would be just the beginning as the corps continues watching pressure levels.

"This doesn't end this historic flood," he said. "This is just the beginning."