Corps: Breaching Birds Point helps more than just Cairo

Friday, April 29, 2011
The city of Cairo, Ill., is dwarfed by the surrounding floodwater from the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers on Thursday, April 28, 2011. (Kristin Eberts)

Intentionally breaching a levee on the Mississippi River, opening the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway, could lower water levels along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers four feet, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public information officer said Thursday.

"It wouldn't be like pulling a cork out of a bathtub. ... It's not going to lower things that fast," Jim Pogue said. "But it would have a desirable effect."

Cairo city officials believe without the breach, the city could be the next 9th Ward of New Orleans. The floodway could be opened once river levels reach 60 feet, and at 6 p.m. Thursday the Ohio River measured at 58.87 feet, less than a foot below record flood stage. The river is still expected to crest Sunday at 60.5 feet and could hit 60.1 feet Saturday.

Opening the spillway would flood more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Southeast Missouri, mostly in Mississippi County.

"It's a shame that anyone would argue that saving farmland in a designated floodway is more important than saving lives," Cairo Mayor Judson Childs said.

The corps, with the president of the Mississippi River Commission, is expected to decide on whether to explode Birds Point levee this weekend, although corps officials said in a news conference late Thursday they're doing everything to avoid the action.

Around 260 households evacuated Cairo so far this week, per a voluntary order from Childs.

As they wait to see what the river does, Pogue said the issue has become "all about Cairo versus Missouri."

"That's really not accurate. What this is about is making sure that we don't have too much pressure on the flood risk management system, on the whole system," he said.

Pogue continued to point out that breaching the levee intentionally would be less destructive than waters topping over a levee.

The corps is also concerned about a levee north of Birds Point -- the Commerce Levee -- that Pogue said without the intentional breach could cause floodwaters to go outside the Mississippi County spillway to the west.

"Instead of flooding 130,000 acres in a controlled fashion we'd be looking at uncontrolled flooding of a lot more acres," Pogue said. "There's just so much more to this than just Cairo."

At Cairo on Thursday, city clerk Lori Hasselrod said the levees have continued to hold and the city's pumping stations were working at full capacity after another round of storms hit the area Wednesday night.

Childs was present at a Thursday court hearing in Cape Girardeau, where Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has asked a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order to halt any plans to breach Birds Point.

Cairo police chief Gary Hankins said the city infrastructure has not been affected too much, although residents continue to pump out their basements and backyards. Roads closed to traffic early in the week -- many of them in the north end of Cairo near Edgewood Park -- have now been opened.

"Actually, the break in the weather has helped. The groundwater inside town we're finally having an opportunity to get that out," Hankins said.

Up to two more inches could fall in the region Saturday night.

This week, Hankins increased patrols, putting officers on alternating 12-hour shifts. Every officer is working every day, he added.

"There's no days off right now. I've pretty much tripled the manpower," he said.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon visited other parts of Southern Illinois via helicopter Thursday, including Marion and Olive Branch.

Most of Olive Branch has been evacuated due to rising river levels and overflow from Horseshoe Lake.

Supporting the corps' plan to breach the Birds Point levee, Simon said in a news release that families are more sacred and valuable than farmland.

"We will work to ensure that the best course of action is pursued by the Army Corps of Engineers and that state and federal agencies continue to bring relief to all who need it," she said in the release.

ehevern@semissourian.com

388-3635

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Cairo, IL

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