UPDATED: A Mighty Big Flood Along the Mississippi

May 2, 2011 11:21 AM
UPDATED: A Mighty Big Flood Along the Mississippi

If crossed fingers could fix a levee, Southeast Missouri would hear only the rumble of tractors. Instead, enough explosives to blow a two-mile breach in the Birds Point, Mo., levee will erupt Monday night and Tuesday morning as the U.S. Corps of Engineers try to relieve pressure from the swollen Mississippi River. 

Major General Michael Walsh, president of hte Mississippi River Commission, announced the decision Monday evening in a press conference at the Bird's Point-New Madrid Floodway. An Army Corps Spokesman from the Joint Information Center says the levee blast is expected drop the Mississippi River stage 3-8 feet at Cairo, Ill. The actual impact on river level is dependent on a variety of conditions. Those are primarily weather related. 

As of 5:00 p.m. Monday, Rivergages.com the Ohio River Stage at Cairo, where it meets the Mississippi, was 61.47 feet, which is nearly 2 feet above the record stage set in 1937. Flood stage is listed at 40 feet. At 4:00 p.m., the Mississippi River at New Madrid was listed at 46.27 feet, with a flood stage of 34.00 feet. 
Charleston, Mo., farmer Donnie DeLine has about 600 acres sitting in the floodplain that will be directly impacted the levee is blasted. After heavy downpours yesterday and more rain today, it's a dismal outlook in a region already reeling from historic flooding.
The puncture will inundate a floodway that is 35 miles long and comprises about 133,000 acres or 205 square miles of land and some 90 homes. DeLine also has farmland further upstream that is threatened by a groaning levee system and backwater lapping away at acres that remain mostly unplanted.
"I’ve never seen [flooding] like this," says DeLine. "I’ve had 80-year-old farmers tell me they’ve never seen it this bad. I don’t know what the answer is--there is no good answer. The river impacts everyone and there is a whole infrastructure at risk."
The Army Corps of Engineers will place three different 1,000 blasting structures along the top side of the levee tonight to allow the floodway to fill. Tomorrow morning it will blast sections of the levee downstream that will essentially allow the water to recede from the 133,000 acres of farm ground as the river levels drops, the Corps spokeman says.  
Ripping into the levee isn’t a random act. Flooding nearly half of Missouri’s Mississippi County has been part of the corps risk management for the Lower Mississippi River since 1928. However, a new war between the states was waged in federal court last week until it was ruled the contingency plan was appropriate to ensure navigation and flood control. Saturday, crews began loading explosives into the 11,000-foot system of pipes buried below the levee.
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Walsh has the authority to operate the steps of the plan when the Mississippi River reaches 58 on the Cairo, Ill., gage with the prediction to rise to 61 feet. Forecasts predict levels will reach 61.5 by Tuesday. Cairo’s walls are supposed to protect the town up to 64 feet, but there’s fear a long lingering crest could compromise the aging earthen levees.
Cairo, pronounced "Care-O" by locals, is the southernmost town in Illinois and sits at the very confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, much as Cairo, Egypt lies along the Nile. From Fort Defiance State Park, an American Civil War fort that was commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant, you can watch as the blue water from the Ohio melds into the mighty and somewhat muddy Mississippi.
Now evacuated, news reports have made much of the decline of this once grand city and have even questioned whether it is worth saving. A population high of 15,203 residents in 1920 has dwindled and in 2010, registered 2,831.  Well preserved mansions of river boat captains and other architectural treasures co-exist with abandoned storefronts.
Some of the fields in the floodway are leased by farmers from the government, but the majority is said to be privately held. DeLine estimates about 20% of that floodway had been planted.
Farmers further down river are also fighting water wars. Len Nall, Lake City, Ark., says thoughts of the tornado that ripped through his town on Thursday have been replaced with the promise of evacuation orders if rains don’t slow soon. His farm land is threatened by the St. Francis River. Water spilling over an emergency levee at Lake Wappapello, has Nall figuring the big water may yet to come. "In addition, we got five-inches of rain yesterday and are expecting another two to four inches today," says Nall.
"Until it stops raining, I don’t think anyone knows what is going to happen except that it is going to flood," he adds.
DeLine says there’s nothing to be done but deal with whatever comes. "A lot of people have it a lot worse," he notes. "At least we have a warning about what is coming and we can figure out a plan from there. Those impacted by tornadoes down here didn’t have that chance."


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