By The Associated Press
WYATT, Mo. (AP) — A few momentary blasts, flashes of orange light, and the Mississippi River began pouring through a wide hole in a Missouri levee, intentionally blown open by the Army Corps of Engineers in the hope of saving a small Illinois town.
Even as the corps’ carried out its bid to protect Cairo, Ill., floodwaters were rising downriver, including in Memphis, Tenn. And the breach in the Birds Point levee wasn’t expected to ease those flooding concerns.
The Army Corps exploded the Birds Point levee after nightfall Monday, sacrificing 130,000 acres of rich farmland and about 100 homes in Missouri to spare the Illinois town of 2,800 residents that is at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Farmers and residents of Wyatt, close to the levee, gathered just after dawn Tuesday to survey the several feet of murky brown waters inside. A small cluster of cattle stood grazing on the slope of the levee, and National Guard soldiers patrolled the area.
Travis Williams, 34, a farmer who owns more than 1,000 acres now under water, said his home is safe because it is on “the good side of the levee.”
“It’s a life changing event,” Williams said. “My heart goes out to all the farmers who lost their land and homes.”
Billy and Tammy Suggs, who live in Wyatt, opened up the town’s tiny city hall so people would have a place to gather and mourn together as the blast occurred Monday night. They said it was a lot stronger than expected, knocking out windows in several homes.
“We went around putting boards up to keep the rain out,” Billy Suggs said.
The National Weather Service said the initial blast had a dramatic effect on the water level in Cairo. Before the breach, the river was at 61.72 feet and rising. As of Tuesday morning, the river was at 60.62 feet and was expected to fall to 59.4 feet by Saturday, it said on its website.
Corps officials have said the breach should reduce water levels at Cairo and another threatened levee in northern Kentucky by up to 4 feet by late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Flooding concerns also are widespread in western Tennessee, where tributaries have been backed up due to heavy rains and the bulging Mississippi River. Streets in suburban Memphis were blocked, and some 175 people filled a church gymnasium to brace for potential record flooding.
Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh has said he might also make use of other downstream “floodways” — basins surrounded by levees that can be blown open to divert floodwaters.
Among those that could be tapped are the 58-year-old Morganza floodway near Morgan City, La., and the Bonnet Carre floodway about 30 miles north of New Orleans. The Morganza has been pressed into service just once, in 1973. The Bonnet Carre, which was christened in 1932, has been opened up nine times since 1937, the most recent in 2008.
Officials in Louisiana and Mississippi are warning that the river could bring a surge of water unseen since 1927.
The corps has said about 241 miles of levees along the Mississippi River between Cape Girardeau, Mo., and the Gulf of Mexico need to be made taller or strengthened. George Sills, a former Army Corps engineer and levee expert in Vicksburg, Miss., said the volume of water moving down the river would test the levee system south of Memphis into Louisiana.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a major flood down the Mississippi River,” Sills said. “This is the highest river in Vicksburg, Miss., since 1927. There will be water coming by here that most people have never seen in their lifetime.”
Engineers carried out the blast on the Missouri levee after spending hours pumping liquid explosives into the floodwall. The blast allowed water to pour into the river basin like a bathtub. Two subsequent blasts further south on the levee, both scheduled for Tuesday morning, were aimed at allowing some of that water to escape back into the Mississippi.
The blasts became necessary after another onslaught of rain Sunday and Monday. Parts of southern Missouri have received more than 20 inches of rain in the past 11 days.
Walsh, who made the decision to blast the levee, said that with the Ohio River now expected to reach 63 feet in Cairo — just a foot under the top of the floodwall — he had no choice.
“Making this decision is not easy or hard,” Walsh said. “It’s simply grave, because the decision leads to loss of property and livelihood, either in a floodway or in an area that was not designed to flood.”
Missouri officials fought hard to stop the plan, filing court actions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Rep. Jo Anne Emerson, a Republican from nearby Cape Girardeau, stood beside Walsh as he announced his decision Monday, but she was clearly unhappy.
“We’re uprooting families that have been here six generations and you don’t even know if it’s going to work,” said Rep. she said.
The explosion came just before 10 p.m., lasting only a few seconds, with reporters watching from about a half mile off the river.
In largely evacuated Cairo, police Chief Gary Hankins watched the orange flashes and was hopeful.
“We had periods here where there were lulls, but it seems like lately we couldn’t catch a break,” he said. “Maybe it seems now like we might be at a turning point. This sort of makes it easier to be optimistic.”
On the other side of the river, Mississippi County, Mo., commissioner Robert Jackson said farewell to his family’s 1,500 acres of farmland. But he also tried to stay positive.
“We can’t start drying up until we finish getting wet,” he said. “I hope this mission accomplishes what they wanted it to, and the sun will shine again.”
Associated Press writers Cain Burdeau in New Orleans and Maria Sudekum Fisher in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.