The Army Corps of Engineers will wait until this weekend to decide whether it is necessary to punch a massive hole in a levee to protect an upstream Illinois town from the rising Mississippi River, top officials with agency said Wednesday.
The corps has said it may have to blow holes, perhaps using explosives, in the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri's Mississippi County to ease rising waters near the 2,800-resident Illinois town of Cairo (KAY'-roh), which sits near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Missouri has filed a federal lawsuit to block the effort because it would swamp farmland. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Cape Girardeau.
The case could present a new showdown between Missouri and neighboring Illinois, where Attorney General Lisa Madigan sought to intervene in the case Wednesday. Madigan's spokeswoman saying Madigan would "do anything she can" to protect Illinoisans by defeating Missouri's motion. Madigan planned to file a motion asking to be added as a defendant with the Army Corps.
But corps spokesman Bob Anderson told The Associated Press that even if a judge gives the go-ahead, the agency cautiously will wait until it gets a better forecast of the river crests to see if the breach is necessary to relieve pressure on Cairo's levees _ or if conventional flood-fighting efforts such as sandbagging could suffice.
The National Weather Service said the Ohio River at Cairo as of midday Wednesday was 58.14 feet and was expected to reach 61.5 feet by Sunday in the city that has a 64-foot downtown floodwall. The forecast high-water mark would eclipse the record 59.5-foot level reached there in 1937.
The decision about whether to bust a hole in the Missouri levee will be dictated by "when it gets to a critical point _ the river reaching 61 feet and the chance the river will continue to rise, threatening all of the levee system and thousands of homes and people," Anderson said.
"One of the most important things is that the decision has not been made to go all the way with the explosives," Anderson added while flying to southeast Missouri from his office in Vicksburg, Miss. "If we're given permission (by a judge) to continue, Sunday would be a critical point when we'd have a more accurate idea of the forecast."
Missouri government leaders argue the levee's destruction would flood up to 130,000 acres of land _ an area stretching 30 miles north to south and as much as eight to 10 miles wide at certain points.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster says floodwaters would leave a layer of silt on farmland that could take a generation to clear and also could damage 100 homes. And Missouri's governor, Democrat Jay Nixon, has said the corps is "trying to solve the entire watershed pressure on the back of Missouri farmers and Missouri communities" and should instead explore other methods of relieving pressure on the levees.
Dozens of property owners in East Prairie, about 12 miles from the Mississippi, packed a stuffy newspaper office Wednesday, pressing the Army Corps official who will ultimately make the call on the levee to let them sandbag or fortify it instead of seeing it destroyed.
"It doesn't seem fair to anybody standing in this room," the town's mayor, Kevin Mainord, told Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, who listened sympathetically but cautioned that the Ohio's expected stay at 60 feet for as many as 10 days could be too much strain on the region's levees, especially those in Cairo, to ignore.
"I recognize all of your lives will be impacted. But these levees have never been under this pressure before," he told the throng, adding that he would rather use the controlled levee break to ease the floodwaters than do nothing and risk seeing a levee burst or be topped elsewhere where more lives and less farmland were at risk.
Cairo's mayor, Judson Childs, endorses the plan for the intentional levee breach, saying it puts people's lives ahead of farmland. On Tuesday, while confident about the sturdiness of the levees surrounding Cairo, Childs publicly asked the city's residents to voluntarily evacuate, saying "I don't want a mass exodus out of here" if the levees fail.