Corps general orders barges in position for possible Birds Point levee breach

Sunday, May 1, 2011
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission, speaks to residents, area officials and media after checking over a large sand boil that has appeared in Cairo, Ill. Saturday, April 30, 2011, before a press conference in Sikeston. (Laura Simon)

SIKESTON, Mo. -- With the rains returning and the flood gauge at Cairo, Ill., expected to match all-time highs by Monday, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh gave the order Saturday to move barges carrying 250 tons of explosives to Wickliffe, Ky., putting them in position to blow the Birds Point levee in Mississippi County.

But Walsh said at a news conference Saturday afternoon he has yet to decide whether he will activate the plan that would inundate 132,000 acres of farmland in Mississippi and New Madrid counties.

"No decision has been made," said Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission and commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi Valley Division. "It's not time-phased, it's condition-phased."

And moving the barges is not even an indicator that he's more strongly considering blowing the levee, which would relieve pressure from the swollen Mississippi River by diverting its waters to 132,000 acres of farmland in Mississippi and New Madrid counties.

It was the next step to prepare for that contingency, which was precipitated by the Cairo gauge of 59.19 feet, which is just below the all-time high of 59.5 feet, a level that is expected at Cairo by Monday or Tuesday, Walsh said. Three to four inches of rain was also expected to be dumped on an already soaked Southeast Missouri within the next two to three days, forecasters said.

Several other decisions would have to be made in the process before he would give the order to activate the floodway, he said. The next step would be to position the barges along the Birds Point levee, followed by an order to charge the pipes and then the final order to activate the plan to create holes in levee, making inflow and outflow spots that Walsh said would lower river waters at Cairo by 3 to 4 feet.

"So there are still a lot of decision points as we move forward," Walsh said.

Walsh, who is the only person who can make the decision, said if he does opt to blow the levee, it would likely be only the first such levee breach. Three other floodways are situated between here and Louisiana and he's had conversations with communities there and those also may require breaching.

"This is an event that may use all the resources that we have to control this level of flooding we have in the system," Walsh said.

Water in new places

On Saturday, Walsh and other corps officers flew from his offices at Vicksburg, Miss., over flooded areas before stopping at Sikeston.

"There is water in places where we hadn't ever, ever seen it before," Walsh said. "This is certainly a fight of the human dimension. We know the price being paid is high. As I flew over, I saw a number of structures and facilities underwater and people evacuating."

Also problematic, he said, is that other levees and flood-control systems along the Mississippi are being stressed by the heavy rains and high floodwaters. He said part of the system that's "not behaving in the way that we thought." Those issues include underseepage, which occurs when water seeps under earthen levees and hurts their structural integrity. He said they also came across the largest sand boil, the movement of sand under a levee, they'd ever come across during a visit to Cairo Saturday. They have been putting in sand berms to try to combat those problems up and down the river, he said.

"The Mississippi River tributary system has never been under this type of pressure before," Walsh said. "There's different places of it that's beginning to degrade. We're putting people in those positions and flood-fighting them until they become stabilized."

The corps has also managed to hold back some of the water. Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the corps' Great Lakes and Ohio River Division and fellow commission member, said dams at Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley have been holding back water that normally flows into the river. But on Saturday, pool levels rose to record highs, he said.

When those pools get to 375 feet, water can't be held back anymore, he said, for fear of losing those flood-control projects from overtopping. On Thursday, Peabody took the unprecedented step of ordering all the districts of the Ohio River Basin to start holding back water at all reservoirs. Walsh said those efforts have made about 1 1/2 feet of difference at the gauge at Cairo.

'Every asset we have'

Fellow Mississippi River Commission member R.D. James, a self-employed farmer from New Madrid, also spoke to the group at the news conference, which included several area farmers as well.

"Folks, this is the largest flood any of us will see in our history, I hope," James said. "But you can rest assured that every asset we have are working to try to prevent using the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. That may come, that may have to be executed. But they're holding off and doing everything they can."

Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore said that the floodway had been successfully evacuated. Moore, who was born and raised in Mississippi County, said this is the worst conditions he's ever seen.

He also hopes the corps doesn't have to blow the levee.

"We really don't want it breached," he said. "But if it's to save lives, that's a different story. We're just doing the best we can with everything that's happened."

Glenn Ault, a Mississippi County farmer who owns about 6,000 acres within the Birds Point Levee spillway, said he would like to see a natural overflow rather than a breach of the levee at Birds Point.

"We won't have near the damage in the floodway and loss of land and ability to raise crops and loss of infrastructure, bridges and all that stuff with a natural overtopping," he said.

Ault said the farmers in Mississippi County consider the risks of the floodwaters for residents of Cairo and do not want to see anyone's life in danger.

"I don't want to reign Cairo, but I don't want them to reign me either," he said.

Staff writer Rebecca Rolwing contributed to this report.

smoyers@semissourian.com

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