CHARLESTON, Mo. (CN) – In a controversial move that an Army Corps of Engineers colonel called both historic and tragic, the Corps blew a hole into the Birds Point levee in southeastern Missouri late Monday night. The explosion allowed Mississippi River floodwaters to rush across some 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland.
The Corps of Engineers said that allowing the water to fill the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway would relieve pressure from record-level flooding upstream and protect Cairo, Ill., a town of 2,800 people at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
The National Weather Service confirmed Tuesday morning that the explosion was having an effect on the water pressure for Cairo’s flood wall and levees. Before the explosion, the river level at Cairo was a record 61.72 feet and rising. Some nine hours after the first levee explosion, the river had lowered to 60.62 feet and was expected to keep falling to 59.4 feet by Saturday.
Missouri officials tried to halt the plan in federal court last week, claiming the Corps’ plan was arbitrary and that it violated clean-water laws because the flood waters would release toxic farming chemicals into the environment. After U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr. rejected the challenge, Missouri appealed to the 8th Circuit, which also ruled in favor of the Corps.
The legal wrangling sparked a war of words between Missouri and Illinois officials that included both states’ governors and attorneys general.
Before the detonation, Carlin Bennett, presiding commissioner of Mississippi County, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that a 10- to 15-foot wall of water could wash across about a third of his county. Bennett estimated that the damages would approach $1 billion.
Meanwhile, southeast Missouri farmers are bracing for the worst. As they wait for the flood waters to recede, many say they will worry about how silt left behind from the river will affect their fields. A whole farming season could be lost.
The floodway had not been used since 1937, when water rose to a record 59.5 feet at Cairo. The record was broken Sunday when the Ohio River topped the 60-foot mark at the town. As more rain fell throughout Sunday, the National Weather Service predicted a crest at 63 feet on Thursday. Cairo’s floodwall was built to withstand river levels of up to 64 feet, but Corps officials worried about the effects of the prolonged water pressure.
Saying that the levee system was “under enormous and unprecedented pressure,” Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh made the call to blow the levee, the Post-Dispatch reported.
Col. Vernie L. Reichling, Memphis district commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, described the decision to blow the levee as both historic and tragic.
But it may not be a one-time event. Walsh has indicated that other downstream floodways, which are basins surrounded by levees that can be intentionally be blown open to divert floodwaters, may be used to ease pressure along the Mississippi. Two floodways that could be targeted are the Morganza floodway near Morgan City, La., and the Bonnet Carre floodway about 30 miles north of New Orleans.
“Making this decision is not easy or hard,” Walsh told the Post-Dispatch. “It’s simply grave – because the decision leads to loss of property and livelihood, either in a floodway or in an area that was not designed to flood.”