U.S. decision on levee blast expected at 5 p.m. CDT

SIKESTON, Mo Mon May 2, 2011 5:22pm EDT

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SIKESTON, Mo (Reuters) - U.S. officials will announce at 5 p.m. CDT on Monday whether they will go ahead with a plan to blow a hole in a Mississippi river levee to relieve flood pressure and save the town of Cairo, Illinois.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers said in a twitter message that Major General Michael Walsh would make the announcement whether to blow up the levee, as the Ohio river, swollen by overnight rains, continued to rise to dangerously high record levels.

The Corps, the primary flood-fighting agency in the region, hopes blowing up the levee will increase the Mississippi River's ability to accommodate the rising waters of the Ohio River, relieving Cairo and other towns.

But blowing up the levee would flood more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Missouri.

Earlier in the day, Bob Anderson, a spokesman for the Corps, told Reuters: "The conditions are getting to the point that they have to make a decision."

A gauge on the Ohio River at Cairo showed the waters at 61.05 feet as of 9 a.m. local time on Monday.

Anderson said the forecast now was that it would crest at 61.5 feet -- 21.5 feet over flood stage and its highest level since 1937.

The Corps has said it would detonate explosives in the levee if the river at Cairo reached 61 feet and was rising.

Cairo, a historic town of 2,800 people located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi, was largely empty after a mandatory evacuation.

Both rivers have been rising as a result of days of rain and the melt and runoff of heavy winter snowstorms.

The Corp has been moving explosives to the levee at Birds Point-New Madrid overnight and the process is expected to be completed in early afternoon.

Once the decision is made to breach the levee, the process will take about three hours, the Corps said.

(Additional reporting by Miriam Moynihan; writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Greg McCune and Marguerita Choy)

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