Army Corps Breaks Open Missouri Levee to Save Town

In an attempt to save Cairo, Ill., farmland and 90 homes were sacrificed.

May 3, 2011— -- The swollen Mississippi River fell today from record levels after the Army Corps of Engineers activated the first set of explosions at the Birds Point, Mo., levee.

The blasts, blowing a two-mile hole in the levee south of Cairo, Ill., late Monday, were an effort to save the city from disastrous flooding.

Overnight, with a thunderous boom and a brilliant flash against a black sky, the corps set off the charges and turned 130,000 acres of farmland into a muddy lake and lowered the Mississippi River by three to four feet.

"Every decision we made was calculated into public safety and protecting lives," Maj. Gen. Mike Walsh of the Army Corps of Engineers said today.

The Corps' explosives experts exploded the two-mile hole in the levee sometime between 9 p.m. and midnight.

"We have executed the first phase of our operation, the first point in the flood plain project," said Col. Vernie Reichling, the commander of the Memphis District Army Corps of Engineers.

The flooded farmland includes about 90 homes.

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

Cairo, which used to boast a population that exceeded 15,000 in Mark Twain's day, now has approximately 2,800 residents.

But farmers like Bob Byrne are worried about the long-term impact of the levee breaks.

"It's a sickening feeling," Byrne told The Associated Press."They're talking about not getting the water off until late July or early August. That knocks out a whole season."

The corps is expected to detonate more explosives at the southern end of the floodway to drain the water from the farmlands.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.