If word comes ... Corps of Engineers ready to blow levee

Sunday, May 1, 2011
Jim Lloyd, operations team leader with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, shows an access well atop the Birds Point levee Friday, April 29, 2011 with floodwaters from the Mississippi River in the background. The Kentucky shore is in the distance. Crews would pump explosives in a slurry into pipes that are embedded in the levee in 1,000-foot lengths. (Fred Lynch)

CHARLESTON, Mo. -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stands ready to launch a precise, technical -- and hopefully highly effective -- 48-hour operation that was preceded with barges moving upriver Saturday and that would culminate with the ebbing of unforgiving floodwaters through the floodway's breach.

But the 200 or so corps employees who are stationed in Mississippi County along the levee are waiting for the word from one man -- Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission.

"Our whole goal in this operation is to basically activate, if ordered by the president of the MRC, the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway," said Jim Lloyd, the corps' operations team leader. "If he gives the order, that's when it begins."

The corps invited the media Friday to its operation headquarters near Charleston, just off the northmost point of the Birds Point levee directly across the river from Wickliffe, Ky. The operations center is not far from Cairo, Ill., which has spent much of the past week fighting back floodwaters before being ordered to evacuate by midnight last night.

So far, Walsh, who commands the Mississippi Valley Division of the corps, has made the decision day-to-day after a conference call with his staff and other engineers. Walsh looks at the gauge at Cairo, weather forecasts and the rate the river is rising before he makes the decision.

The Cairo flood gauge stood Saturday afternoon at 59.19 feet and was just 3 inches below the record of 59.5, with the breaching plan set at 61 feet for activation.

If the general does decide to do it -- and the federal courts cleared the way Friday denying a state's motion for a temporary restraining order -- the plan kicks into high gear, Lloyd said. An appellate court Saturday also refused to block the corps from blowing the levee.

The barges were ordered from Hickman, Ky., to Birds Point in Mississippi County Saturday and stand ready this morning with 265 tons of explosives. The explosives, Lloyd said, are a liquid mix of aluminum powder and sodium perchlorate, which is sometimes used to make ammunition.

If the order comes, corps crews would pump the mixture into pipes burrowed into the levee in 1,000-foot lengths, each separated by 60-foot gaps, and accessible through holes cut into the earthen embankment. Getting the barge in position and getting the explosives into place would take about 24 hours, Lloyd said.

"We will mix the blasting agent prior to pumping it in," Lloyd said. "If the hydraulic conditions and the forecast and the president of the MRC determines we need to operate, we'll send in explosive technicians, prime the ends of the 1,000-foot sections and we'll detonate it."

A detonating cord will be laid and the corps team will prime them with C-4 explosives before installing the blasting cap before pushing a button from their operations site.

The first breach would allow for inflow and is just across the river from Wickliffe, Ky. A total of 11,000 feet would be blown first to create inflow to allow waters from the river to exit the river's normal path and into the floodway's 130,000 acres, largely in Mississippi County.

The operation will relieve pressure on the lower Ohio and lower Mississippi rivers by expanding the cross-section of the river and giving it more room, Lloyd said.

Twenty-four hours later, an outflow breach would be created by blowing two 5,500-foot sections at the floodway's southern end just north of New Madrid, Mo., Lloyd said. That will allow the waters to return to the Mississippi in that area, Lloyd said. He said that breaching the levee will cause water to drop in the vicinity of Cairo, by 3 to 4 feet. Smaller water reductions will be seen above Cairo and through the floodway reach, he said.

The corps crews have already been at work doing some prep work, Lloyd said. They've been busy digging out the manholes, or "fuse plugs," which has been completed.

The floodway, a combination of public and private land with easements granting the government the right to let water pass through, has been activated only once, in the record flood of 1937.

Lloyd said Walsh will be closely monitoring the weather forecasts. Showers and storms forecast for today and Monday are likely to bring 1 to 3 inches of rainfall to Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois, said David Humphrey, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service at Paducah, Ky. The area could see 2 to 4 inches of rain through Tuesday, he said, but this rainfall isn't likely to bring higher crests along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

"The overall impact on the larger rivers is that it will slow the recession after the crest," Humphrey said.

Dams at Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers will continue to cut water releases over the next 24 hours in an effort to mitigate flooding on the Ohio River, but they are nearing maximum pool stages.

If the levee is breached, the U.S. Coast Guard will stop barge traffic and the Federal Aviation Administration would restrict airplane flight, though the corps would have a helicopter in the air to monitor the activation. Cairo has about 3,000 people; the 130,000 acres of farmland in Mississippi County has about 200 residents in 90 homes.

Staff writer Melissa Miller contributed to this report.



Pertinent address:

Charleston, MO

Cairo, IL

Wickliffe, KY

Hickman, KY

Map of pertinent addresses

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