CHICAGO A U.S. government agency took a step closer to blowing up a Mississippi River levee to control flooding on Saturday after a court decision cleared the way for it to proceed.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said they dispatched barges to the Birds Point levee near Cairo, Illinois, carrying a slurry mix that could be used to detonate the levee. The barges are set to arrive at Cairo from Hickman, Kentucky, late on Saturday.
"That is one of the many decisions that we make before and if we ever get to the decision (to detonate)," Major General Michael Walsh of the Army Corps told reporters.
"After that the next decision is to take the barges and preposition them. The next one is to charge the pipes and the next one is to operate (detonate)," he added.
He provided no timetable for the decisions and said the Corps is closely watching river levels, expected to crest by Tuesday.
A federal appeals court earlier on Saturday said the Corps had the right to breach the levee to prevent flooding in Cairo, Illinois, as permitted by a 1928 law.
The state of Missouri originally sued to stop the Corps plan, arguing that blowing up the levee would flood 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland and do extensive damage. The states of Illinois and Kentucky took the other side, saying that towns in their states could be flooded if the levee is not blown up.
A lower court ruled against Missouri on Friday, and the state then petitioned to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"I'm pleased that the court quickly rejected Missouri's request. The Army Corps must have the ability to take any action necessary to protect lives and homes in Cairo and the surrounding communities," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a statement.
Cairo, an historic town of 2,800 people, is at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Both rivers have been rising as a result of days of rain and the melt and runoff of the winter's heavy snow storms.
Cairo Mayor Judson Childs said early Saturday the city is doing a voluntary evacuation.
In Missouri some 230 residents have been evacuated and the National Guard has set up command posts, the governor said.
"While the Corps must reach additional decision points before intentionally breaching the levee, we have carried out numerous plans to prepare for that contingency," said Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. "Upon my orders, 630 citizen-soldiers and airmen of the Missouri National Guard are in place in the region."
Emergency management officials in neighboring state Tennessee said Saturday they too were monitoring rising river levels which are near record highs in the northwestern Tennessee amid flood warnings along the Mississippi, Cumberland and Ohio rivers over the next few days.
The Army Corps said it will detonate explosives in the levee if the river at Cairo reaches 61 feet and is rising. But it could potentially blow the levee even if the river does not reach 61 feet if there is too much stress on the system.
"The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project has never been under this type of pressure before," said Walsh.
The river at 59.2 feet on Saturday afternoon, forecast to rise to 60.5 feet by Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.
Up to 5 inches of rain is forecast for southeastern Missouri, western Kentucky, southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana through Monday night. Western Tennessee could see up to 7 inches by late Tuesday, the weather service said.
(Reporting by Christine Stebbins, Editing by Greg McCune)