CHARLESTON, Missouri (Reuters) - The effort to protect river towns in Illinois and Kentucky from rising floodwaters by blowing open a levee and inundating more than 100,000 acres of Missouri farmland appeared to be slowly working on Tuesday.
The controversy surrounding the extraordinary demolition continued, with farmers affected by it filing suit.
Dick Durbin, a Democratic Senator from Illinois, also cautioned that the endangered river towns, including Cairo at the southern-most tip of Illinois, were “not out of the woods yet.”
The National Weather Service said the river gauge at Cairo, Illinois, where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet, showed water levels had dropped more than a foot-and-a-half since 10 p.m. last night, when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers blasted a hole in a protective embankment downriver from the historic town.
“The plan performed as expected,” Jim Pogue, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman, said in a telephone interview.
By 4 p.m. local time on Tuesday, the gauge at Cairo had dropped to 60.08 feet and was expected to continue dropping through the weekend.
The Cairo gauge topped out at 61.72 feet, its highest level since 1937, on Monday night before the Corps detonated the levee to allow the Mississippi River to cope with the rising waters of the Ohio River.
Both rivers have been rising as a result of days of rain and the melt and runoff of heavy winter snowstorms.
Carlin Bennett, a commissioner in the rural Missouri county that is bearing the brunt of the flooding, said it was a little early to make the call, but was afraid the operation would not drop the river the three to four feet the government wants.
“It’s looking like all of our worst fears here,” said Bennett, who has 80 acres himself that are being flooded. “Our land got flooded and they are not getting the flooding relief they expected.”
Missouri farmers who returned Tuesday to survey the land they work found it beneath 8 to 10 feet of brown water.
Many, like Kevin Nally, 40, who farms 250 acres here, seemed resigned to the necessity of the extraordinary move, which continues to generate lawsuits against the Corp.
“They didn’t have a choice,” he said. “It was coming over the levee anyway.”
Nally had already planted 80 acres of wheat, which was washed away when the waters poured in last night.
His losses will be covered by insurance. But he said he was worried about the long-term damage that might result if too much sand is left behind.
Legal efforts by the state of Missouri to stop the Corps from blasting the levee at Birds Point-New Madrid failed.
But on Tuesday attorneys filed a new private class-action complaint in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims on behalf of farmers whose land was flooded.
“In the process of breaching the levee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also destroyed or is in the process of destroying 90 households and more than 100,000 acres of the country’s richest farmland,” said J. Michael Ponder, the attorney from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, who filed the suit.
“What these property owners and farmers are seeking is just compensation for the land and livelihood they have lost -- possibly forever or for decades.”
The government blew a two mile hole in a 56-mile levee that holds back the Mississippi to relieve pressure and expects later on Tuesday to blow two smaller holes in the same levee downstream to allow the water to flow back into the river.
The effort was designed to save a number of towns along the Ohio River, first among them Cairo.
Located at the southern tip of Illinois between two states, Missouri and Kentucky, that still permitted slavery prior to abolition in the 19th century, Cairo was an important destination for runaway slaves during the Civil War.
Its population of around 3,000 is more than 60 percent African-American and a third of its residents have incomes below the poverty level.
Durbin said that while the levee breach had lowered water levels, the Corps was continuing to monitor “dangerous sand boils and weakened levees.”
Writing by James B. Kelleher; editing by Jerry Norton and Peter Bohan