ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Missouri’s attorney general asked the Supreme Court on Sunday to intervene and block a proposed federal plan to protect the southern Illinois town of Cairo by blowing up a levee on the Mississippi River.
State Attorney General Chris Koster asked the nation’s highest court for a temporary injunction to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from intentionally breaching the Birds Point levee, a move that would flood 130,000 acres of farmland and destroy the homes of an estimated 200 people in Missouri.
Visiting the soggy levee on Sunday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told reporters: “We are here for the long run, and stand ready to make sure that people of this region of our state are safe. I just ask each one to stay calm and stay focused on the weather that’s here and the weather that’s coming.”
By blowing up the levee, the Corps hopes to increase the Mississippi River’s ability to accommodate the rising waters of the Ohio River, relieving Cairo and other towns.
But a final decision seemed at least another day away. The Corps said late Sunday that a decision had not yet been made whether to go through the extraordinary move and that it would take at least 20 hours to actually insert the explosives into the levee’s walls.
Cairo, a historic town of 2,800 people located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi, was largely empty after a mandatory evacuation as the Ohio, swollen by overnight rains, continued to rise to dangerously high record levels.
Both rivers have been rising as a result of days of rain and the melt and runoff of heavy winter snowstorms.
Heavy rains fell again on Sunday and were expected to continue through Tuesday morning, when National Weather Service forecasts that the Ohio, the largest tributary of the Mississippi River, could crest at 60.5 feet at Cairo, a full foot above the 1937 record.
Cairo’s mayor, Judson Childs, ordered the mandatory evacuation as of midnight Saturday after meeting with the Corps, the top flood-fighting agency.
“There is no count yet on the number of people evacuated, but it’s just about a ghost town,” Childs told Reuters.
But he said some residents were opting to stay behind.
“There are some people who will stay, like me, who are going to go down with the ship, so to speak,” he said.
The Corps has dispatched barges to the Birds Point levee, carrying a slurry mix that could be used to blow up the levee.
“Right now, there’s no news or decision on what the Corps will do regarding the levee,” Childs said. “Everything can change minute to minute and hour to hour.”
A federal appeals court said on Saturday the Corps had the right to breach the levee, as permitted by a 1928 law.
The Corps said it would detonate explosives in the levee if the river at Cairo reached 61 feet and was rising. But it could potentially blow up the levee even if the river does not reach 61 feet if there is too much stress on the system.
The state of Missouri originally sued to stop the Corps plan, arguing that it would do extensive damage.
Illinois and Kentucky took the other side, saying towns in their states could be flooded if the levee were not blown up.
A lower court ruled against Missouri on Friday, and the state petitioned to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which denied Missouri the legal relief it sought on Saturday.
Additional reporting by Eric Johnson and Christine Stebbins; Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Peter Bohan