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CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can blow up a Mississippi River levee, which would flood Missouri farmland but prevent the flooding of an Illinois town.
U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. ruled that the Corps had the right to breach the levee to prevent flooding in Cairo, Illinois, as permitted by a 1928 law.
The levee breach could flood 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland, which contains about 90 homes. Missouri had filed suit to prevent the Corps from carrying out its plan.
Limbaugh wrote that he found that the Corps is committed to implementing the plan only as essential to provide protection to all citizens. He wrote "this Court finds that no aspect of the Corps' response to these historic floods suggests arbitrary or capricious decision-making is occurring."
The Corps plans to decide this weekend whether to blow up the Birds Point levee, depending on the level of water in the river. It will detonate explosives in the levee if the Cairo river reaches 61 feet. At 8 a.m. local time on Friday, it was at 59 feet and was forecast to rise to 60.5 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
Missouri plans to appeal the judge's decision. But the approximately 200 Missouri state residents who would be in the path of the flood if the levee is detonated have already been evacuated.
Cairo, an historic town of 2,800 people, is at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Both rivers have been rising to historic levels as a result of days of rain and the melt and runoff of the winter's heavy snow storms.
Both neighboring states of Illinois and Kentucky had protested Missouri's suit. Kentucky has argued that more than $32 million in damage could be suffered in Fulton County alone if the water got too high and the Birds Point levee was not intentionally breached.
James Wilson, the former mayor of Cairo and spokesman for current Mayor Judson Childs, said they are both "very pleased" with the judge's decision.
"We hope to God it doesn't have to be done," said Wilson of the proposed levee breach. "But we feel more secure in Cairo knowing if the river reaches a certain potential level they would take the action to ease the situation in Cairo and around us."
Wilson said that up to 600 people had already voluntarily evacuated the town, and that Childs is "strongly" recommending Friday that senior citizens, anyone with medical conditions, and families with young children in single-story homes should leave in the next 24 hours. Flooding is already a problem in town, and people are sandbagging around their homes.
"It's getting kind of deserted," said Wilson. "It's an eerie feeling."
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan applauded the decision, noting that if the river gets too high and Birds Point is not blown up, water in Cairo could reach up to 20 feet, topping a two-story house. Cairo is over 60 percent African-American and the income of a third of its residents is below the poverty level, Wilson said. Alexander County, which includes Cairo, has a median income of $26,042.
Corps Division Commander Vernie Reichling said Friday that the Corps is still in a "holding pattern" while it watches the river and the weather.
More heavy rainfall is possible in the Cairo area on Saturday night into early next week, with up to four inches by Tuesday night, according to the National Weather Service.
Meanwhile, flooding conditions were easing farther up the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. The river started receding and is expected to fall below flood stage early next week.
Mike Callahan, a hydrologist with NWS, said how quickly the river drops depends on the amount of rain that falls over the next four days.
Callahan stressed that more rain than predicted could slow things down and that residents displaced from their homes should wait and see what happens.
Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Reporting by Miriam Moynihan and Pam Windsor. Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Bohan