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Army Corps breaches Birds Point levee, flooding farms to protect towns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 3, 2011 - Deploying a flood-control tool it had not used in 74 years, the Army Corps of Engineers detonated explosives to breach part of the Birds Point levee in Missouri's Bootheel late Monday to ease the flooding in Cairo, Ill., and elsewhere in the region.

The decision to "activate" the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway shortly after 10 p.m. was made by Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, who said in a statement that "we must use everything we have . . . to prevent a more catastrophic event."

When the first segment of the two-mile-long "fuse plug" levee was breached, witnesses reported hearing a loud boom and seeing six orange flashes in the darkness, which prevented journalists from seeing how quickly the swollen Mississippi River rushed into the farmland of the floodway. Another segment of the frontline levee was to be breached by explosion later in the night, and a third segment on Tuesday morning.

The hours immediately following the detonation saw the Ohio River at Cairo fall more than half a foot, to 61.13 feet at midnight. That still surpasses the former record of 59.5 feet, set in 1937.

Walsh said it was unprecedented to breach the levees at night, but told reporters that "waiting until morning would make it so much worse" because the rain was expected to keep falling and the river levels keep rising. "The system continues to be under enormous pressure," he said.

The controversial decision to activate the floodway for the first time since 1937 set off a wave of complaints from Missouri officials who warned of the damage to fertile farmland on the 130,000-acre floodway but stirred a currrent of praise from Illinois officials who wanted the corps to use every tool available to ease record flood conditions at Cairo and elsewhere near the confluence of the swollen Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

After Walsh informed him earlier Monday of his decision to breach the levee, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement that the state "will continue to provide resources and personnel to protect the people of the Bootheel. We have boots on the ground. We are prepared. And southeast Missouri will move forward again."

Corps experts had spent about 24 hours in the rain loading slurried explosives into the levee segments that were later blasted to activate the floodway, which extends from Birds Point to New Madrid.

In a letter sent Monday to Secretary of the Army John McHugh and the Corps' Deputy Commanding General Maj. Gen. William T. Grisoli, U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., along with U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, urged the military commanders to make sure that "the floodway should be restored in full, without delay or red tape and without uncertainty or further hardship upon those who will inevitably suffer in the Missouri Bootheel."

The lawmakers wrote that "scores of homes, as well as 130,000 acres of productive property and public infrastructure, are within the path of destruction" of the floodway. They urged the corps "to dedicate all available planning resources to respond decisively, definitively, and immediately to give back the personal property, livelihoods, and public infrastructure that will be lost."

In his statement, Nixon urged Missourians in the region "to continue to cooperate fully with state, county and local law enforcement, as they have at every stage of this process. Together, we will ensure that Missouri families stay safe in the coming days. And together, we will recover and rebuild."

A few hours before Monday's announcement by the corps, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., warned in a Senate speech that "if Cairo's levee bursts, the [corps] estimates that the town will be inundated with as much as 15 feet of water." He said "the entire state of Illinois is operating under a state of emergency; 320 National Guardsmen are on patrol while the Army Corps and local first responders are putting generators and supplies where they're needed."

Across the river, Walsh and other officials spent part of Monday inspecting sand boils and other evidence that floodwaters were undermining some levees around Cairo, most of whose 2,800 residents had been evacuated on Sunday. The National Weather Service said the Ohio River had crested above 61 feet at Cairo -- the level at which a master plan calls for activation of the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway.

But Emerson warned that "the destruction of the levee would be a tremendous hardship for southern Missouri. I want the corps to be 1,000 percent certain that detonating the Birds Point levee is necessary, and I want them to be completely committed to restoring the floodway once this situation has passed."

After the corps' announcement, Emerson said: "The New Madrid floodway is not a failsafe for the rest of the Mississippi River Basin. The likelihood of dramatic flooding at other points along the river has not been changed by the decision today, but opening the floodway guarantees that the people living and working in the New Madrid floodway will suffer."

Emerson added: "We have a long, long road ahead of us. The certain damage to homes, buildings and productive farmland will take years to undo. I have high expectations that the corps go above and beyond to aid the recovery effort for the people and communities affected by this disaster."

Meanwhile, a report and photos in the Southeast Missourian indicated that segments near the southern end of the Birds Point-New Madrid levee already were being breached by the swiftly rising river.

As southeast Missouri and southern Illinois were pummeled with more rain Monday and the Ohio River surpassed records levels at Cairo, corps officials warned that the Lower Mississippi River -- the segment of the river from Cairo south to New Orleans -- was nearing a flood that would test the corps' flood structures put in place after the devastating Great Flood of 1927.

"The 'Project Flood' is upon us," warned Walsh in a statement Sunday. "This is the flood that engineers envisioned following the 1927 flood. It is testing the system like never before."

Walsh, who will make the decision on whether to activate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, talked Sunday with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and briefed U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and U.S. Rep. JoAnn Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau.

Nixon was traveling to Mississippi County to view the situation and talk to some of the floodway residents who have been evacuated. He said in an interview that more than 700 National Guard troops had been deployed to the area to help with the evacuations and protect vacant properties.

Saying his message to about 200 evacuated floodway residents was to "maintain calm," Nixon said the Guard would make sure that the floodway property was as secure as possible. "None of us wants to see a levee blown," he said, but he conceded that it may be unavoidable because the Ohio and Mississippi rivers are at high flood stages.

Nixon said Sunday that Walsh told him that he had taken the next step by "moving the explosives to the Missouri side" of the Mississippi, but had not made a final decision on whether to blow the levee. That decision will depend on river and flood conditions, corps officials said Sunday.

After his meetings with corps officials and local residents in Mississippi County, Blunt traveled to St. Louis. Blunt said in an interview that the farmers in the affected areas stand to lose as much as $100 million in lost crops if the levee is blown up and the farmland flooded.

Blunt said the farmers also won't qualify for any federal reimbursement, or any insurance coverage, because the levee would have been intentionally broken. If the levee remains intact, and water flows over the top, the farmers then will qualify for payments from the federal flood insurance program, Blunt said.

The senator emphasized the farmers recognized that their farmland had always had a federal easement, for just such a likelihood as what is facing them now.

"I would prefer that it not be breached," Blunt said of the levee. Even if the floodwaters top the levee, he said, the structure would remain largely intact and would not have to be rebuilt, costing millions of dollars.

But Blunt emphasized that he was not criticizing the corps of engineers, which he said was facing a dilemma with no pleasant choices.

Supreme Court declines Koster's appeal

Koster said Sunday that he has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review Saturday's ruling from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis that denied the state's request to block the corps from blasting the Birds Point levee.

"Although we acknowledge Missouri finds itself in a very challenging legal situation before the Supreme Court, I want to make sure we exhaust all potential legal remedies and ask every possible court to review the plan proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers," Koster said in a statement.

"In light of the devastation faced by the citizens of Mississippi County -- devastation that will persist in the area for years to come -- it is the responsibility of this office to pursue every possible avenue of legal review."

But Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, without comment, denied Missouri's request to block the corps' plan, according to the Associated Press. Alito is the justice who deals with emergency requests from Missouri and other states in the federal 8th Circuit.

A few hours after Koster's statement, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan accused her Missouri counterpart of making "yet another unfortunate and legally unjustified attempt" at keeping federal authorities from protecting Illinoisans. Madigan pledged Sunday to "fight this effort every step of the way."

Walsh watching flood levels

As rain poured down in parts of the Ohio and lower Mississippi valleys, the corps' Walsh -- operating out of a temporary office in Sikeston -- was closely monitoring flood levels.

In a statement Sunday, he said that the final decision had not been made yet on whether to breach the Birds Point levee and operate the floodway. However, the statement said that "should flood pressures increase, it may be necessary to move to the next step in the Floodway Operations Plan."

The purpose of the 35-mile-long Birds Point-New Madrid floodway is to "lower flood stages and pressure on the entire system" -- and, in theory, to help minimize damage and save lives downstream -- when the Lower Mississippi reaches historic flood levels.

The Mississippi River watershed, the world's third largest, covers more than 1.24 million square miles and drains 41 percent of the continental United States.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.
Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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