Courts Won’t Step in as Corps Weighs Levee Break

CAIRO, Ill. – With federal courts opting not to step in, the Army Corps of Engineers has begun pumping explosives into a Missouri levee as it weighs whether to blast it open to ease inland floodwaters and spare an Illinois town where most residents were forced to scurry from a river still rising to record heights.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, without explaining his decision, rejected Missouri’s latest and perhaps final attempt to block the corps from intentionally breaching the Birds Point levee to ease pressure and reduce water levels along the swollen Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The levee lies on the Mississippi, just downriver from where it merges with the Ohio near the small city of Cairo.

The ruling by Alito, who handles emergency requests from Missouri and various other Midwest states, came the same day all but 20 to 30 families in 2,800-resident Cairo were ordered out of the city and away from the Ohio, which eclipsed its 74-year-old record height was expected to rise further.

As Illinois National Guard troops went door to door with local law officers to enforce the mayor’s “mandatory” evacuation order the previous night, those who were allowed to stay — a courtesy extended only to adults — did so at their own peril, signing waivers acknowledging they understood the risk.

A few hours later, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, the corps officer who ultimately will decide the levee’s fate, ordered crews to move barges to the Missouri side of the river and begin loading pipes embedded in the levee with explosives in anticipation of blowing up a two-mile section just downriver from Cairo.

Insisting no decision on the levee’s fate had been made, Walsh said it would take 20 hours to get the pipes filled — time he would spend observing the rivers’ rise and the rainfall, which continued pounding the region into early Monday.

The Ohio, as of early Monday, had risen to 60.58 feet at Cairo — eclipsing the 1937 record there of 59.5 feet. The river was expected to crest Tuesday at 61.5 feet and stay there for at least into Friday, raising the corps’ concerns about the strain the water was putting on the levee in Cairo and other cities. Cairo’s floodwall can handle 64 feet.

The corps said breaching the Birds Point levee would provide would take pressure off Cairo’s floodwall and other levees father south along the Mississippi.

But the plan could inundate 130,000 acres of farmland in Missouri’s agriculture-reliant Mississippi County. Missouri officials contend that would crush that region’s economy and environment by rendering that cropland useless under potentially feet of sand and silt.

Given the record water levels, “this is a dramatic, once or twice in a lifetime kind of occurrence” for the region, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said after touring the levee Sunday with Walsh. “We understand the general and his team have difficult decisions to make.”

Just 17 miles from Cairo, near tiny Olive Branch, Janice Bigham watched as her husband and volunteers desperately scrambled to heighten the sandbag wall that made their ranch-style home an oasis from the swampy, snake-ridden floodwaters that already had swallowed up many nearby homes and outbuildings that lacked such defenses.

“All we can do is hope and pray that they blow that levee,” said Bigham, 40. “That’s the only thing that might take the pressure off; otherwise, the water will be over the road and wipe out Olive Branch.”

Bigham said her gray-and-white brick home needed to be saved, because her late father helped build it. “That’s all I have left of him,” she said before turning away briefly, her chin trembling as tears welled.

Cairo and the rest of Alexander County can ill afford major flooding. The area’s non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate stood at about 12 percent in March, 3 percent higher than the state average. Several of the county’s sheriff’s cruisers were repossessed in recent years because it hadn’t paid its bills.

Cairo served as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters early in the Civil War and became a hub of commerce thanks to rails and the rivers, growing to 15,200 residents by the 1920s. But air travel undermined its geographic importance, and employers and many residents left the city after a race riot in 1967.

The riverfront now resembles an Old West stage set, its facades crumbling and windows boarded up. Some buildings are little more than heaps of bricks.

On Sunday, the city looked apocalyptic, its streets deserted of traffic that only included police cars. Prisoners loaded sandbags on an auto-parts business’ lot, then loaded them in a fire-brigade fashion onto a dump truck under the watchful eye of guards. Churches that would have been overflowing that time of day were shuttered.

Saturated ground had given way under some streets, in one case leaving a crater about 8 feet deep near another stretch of buckled road.

“Like any situation of this magnitude, it’s going to hopefully endear people to each other,” Police Chief Gary Hankins said. “Hopefully, this will prove our worth as far as coming together as a community.”