U.S. News

Missouri county starts evacuations as Corps decides levee fate

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A rural Missouri county was evacuating residents on Wednesday from a 130,000-acre area that will be flooded if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides to blow up a Mississippi River levee.

The Missouri attorney general has filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to stop the Corps from detonating the levee at Birds Point. The Corps will likely decide this weekend whether to intentionally breach the levee in hope of keeping the historic river town of Cairo, Illinois from flooding.

Missouri claims demolition of the levee would damage the farmland, leaving a layer of silt that would take a generation to clear. But Cairo’s mayor believes the Corps must act to save lives.

“The city of Cairo is on the verge of being the next 9th Ward of New Orleans,” said Mayor Judson Childs in a statement, referring to an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He said the city is 70 percent African-American with a large population of senior citizens, most with “nowhere to go and no way to get there.”

“It’s a shame that anyone would argue that saving farmland in a designated floodway is more important than saving lives,” Childs said. “We will not stand by and watch this happen.”

A law enacted in 1928 allows the Corps to blow up the levee if the Mississippi River reaches a certain level -- 58 feet at Cairo with the prediction to rise to 61 feet, according to the Corps.

But Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster believes the law is “unclear” as to whether the Corps actually has the authority to make the decision to detonate.

“There are no ‘good’ options at this juncture,” said Koster in a statement. U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh, Jr., a cousin of talk show host Rush Limbaugh, will hear the case in Missouri Thursday.

The Corps began moving equipment for the detonation to the site Tuesday afternoon. But it does not have to make a decision until probably Saturday on whether to blow up the levee since the National Weather Service revised down by half a foot its forecast of how high the Mississippi would rise, according to spokesman Bob Anderson.

He said detonating the levee, which hasn’t been done since 1937, would take one quarter of the flow out of the river and reduce pressure on other levee systems.

About 100 homes are in the New Madrid Floodway by the levee, and all were being evacuated Wednesday, according to the Mississippi County, Missouri sheriff’s office.

About 400 people already have evacuated Cairo, according to Childs’ spokesman, James Wilson. Wilson noted that one of the town’s two banks is shutting up Wednesday, as did one of its grocery stores.

One problem the area is experiencing is that after days of rain, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers are flooding at the same time, and the Ohio, which usually drains into the bigger river, can’t do so, according to Buddy Rogers, spokesman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.

Cairo, an important riverboat town in the 19th century which has declined in population since 1920, sits at the confluence of both rivers. It is referenced in Mark Twain’s novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and the W.C. Handy song “St. Louis Blues.”

Writing and reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Jerry Norton