Cairo unscathed after levee blasts reduce danger

By Gus Bode

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said Cairo’s water gauge dropped 4 feet after the blasts at Birds Point levee Monday and Tuesday.

The water has created a lake in the former spillway in Mississippi County, Mo., and displaced approximately one-third of the county’s residents.

Missouri officials estimate flood water in the spillway has damaged 100 homes, 130,000 acres of farm land and created a silt layer that will take years to clear. They must wait until the water settles to report exact damages.


U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said farmers in the spillway with crop insurance would be treated the same as if the flood were a man-made disaster, the Associated Press reported. Twenty-five farmers in the spillway filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the federal government’s decision to blow the levee, according to an AP report. The lawsuit claims the government violated the farmers’ rights by taking land without adequate compensation, the Southeast Missourian reported Tuesday.

The main concern in the Mississippi County community was the strength of the setback levee, a second levee that protects Mississippi County, which the Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t tested to withstand the pressure of the water released, county commissioner Carlin Bennett said. He said the setback levee remains intact well after the corps mission was completed.

Bennett said when the levee was initially blown, a 10- to 15-foot wall of water rapidly filled the spillway. When the water moved inland, it spread out over the wider stretch of land and had less pressure when it reached the setback levee.

The county is now trying to determine what actions to take after the explosions and whether it is possible to recover, Bennett said.

Quinn made an emergency trip to Cairo Monday after water levels reached 61 feet. Levels are expected to rise again with a 30 percent chance of rain in the forecast Thursday, according to the National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky.

The Birds Point levee in Mississippi County was blown at about 10 p.m. Monday to protect Cairo.

Joe DeBose, a specialist with West Frankfort National Guard, said before the explosion he and other guard members helped Cairo residents evacuate and later monitored the levee for 17 hours, Sunday. They also built support beams to sustain the wall while the Corps decided whether to blow the levee.


The corps’ decision came after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Missouri’s attempts Sunday to block the corps’ plan to protect Cairo and after several days of weighing whether the action was necessary.

Before the blast the water levels in Cairo, a town of 2,800 people between the swelling Ohio and Mississippi rivers, posed a safety risk that would have affected more areas than Cairo if not acted on immediately, said Maj. Gen. of the Army Corps of Engineers Michael Walsh.

DeBose said Cairo had nothing left to do after Gen. Walsh made the command to blow holes in the Birds Point levee.

“We sandbagged all we could and got people out,” DeBose said. “Until the flood is over we can’t do anything.”

Quinn deployed an additional 100 National Guard troops to southern Illinois to help with the flooding problems. He said he is proud of the efforts of local and state government and volunteers throughout this series of severe weather.

DeBose said the guard’s presence was necessary when the crisis began but now the state needs to allow volunteers to help communities instead of paying National Guard troops money it doesn’t have.

“It’s too bad now, and all we’re doing is wasting money and time,” DeBose said. “People in the guard could lose their homes and everything because of loss of pay, but nobody looks at that side.”

Walsh told the AP he may look to use other floodways, including the 58-year-old Morganza floodway near Morgan City, La., and the Bonnet Carre floodway about 30 miles north of New Orleans, if blowing the Birds Point levee does not suffice. The Morganza was used once in 1973. The Bonnet Carre was opened in 2008, the most recent of its nine uses, according to the AP.

Louisiana and Mississippi officials told the AP they have warned residents the river could bring the largest surge of water the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

More than 240 miles of levees between Cape Girardeau, Mo. and the Gulf of Mexico along the Mississippi River need to be made taller or strengthened, the corps told the AP.