CHICAGO (Reuters) - Government engineers will blow up a third section of a Mississippi River levee on Thursday to manage flooding, as a wall of water roared down the nation's largest river system, threatening towns and cities all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew up a two-mile section of the Birds Point levee Monday night, inundating about 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland in a desperate attempt to ease flooding in towns in Illinois and Kentucky.
Water levels did recede but a second, smaller section was detonated Tuesday afternoon to allow water back into the river. A third and last blast was scheduled for Wednesday but was delayed until 1 p.m. on Thursday by "logistical difficulties," the Corps said in a statement on Wednesday night.
The Corps, which is responsible for the system of locks and dams along the Mississippi River, would then turn its attention to the growing threat further south.
"The entire system is experiencing flooding and we will continue our fight downstream," said Major Gen. Michael J. Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, in a statement.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday declared parts of Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee as disaster areas due to flooding, freeing up federal aid to help those affected.
Arkansas closed a 15-mile stretch of westbound lanes of one of the busiest road arteries in the nation, Interstate 40, for the time ever due to flooding, according to the state's transportation department. More than 31,000 vehicles travel daily through the section of road closed, and 65 to 70 percent of those are trucks, said Glenn Bolick, Arkansas Transportation
Highway officials were diverting traffic onto rural roads but even some of these were flooded, they said.
Further downstream in Mississippi, some residents of the historic Civil War town of Vicksburg were moving to higher ground on Wednesday to avoid the rising flood waters.
"We are not going to stay here," said Vicksburg resident Harold Manner. "The families all around us are taking what they can and moving out of here, at least for now."
The levee system in Mississippi is holding for now but it has never been tested like this before, officials said.
"Compared to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 this flood is going to be a lot nastier," said Marty Pope, senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Jackson.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has had sandbags delivered to his Yazoo City home to prevent it from flooding.
Large amounts of rain and melt from the winter snow has caused a chain reaction of flooding from Canada and the Dakotas through Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee. It is expected to soon hit Mississippi and Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Additional reporting by Tim Ghianni in Nashville, Miriam Moynihan in St. Louis; Leigh Coleman in Biloxi, Mississippi and Suzi Parker in Little Rock; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Bohan