Activation of Birds Point floodway ordered

Monday, May 2, 2011 ~ Updated 10:51 PM
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh announces at a news conference Monday, May 2, 2011 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will activate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway starting at 9 p.m. Col. Vernie Reichling Jr., center, also spoke. At right is U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson. (Fred Lynch)

Update: The Birds Point levee was blasted just after 10 p.m.

SIKESTON, Mo. -- They're going to do it.

Between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight, U.S. Army Corps of Engineer crews will detonate charges that will blast a hole in the Birds Point levee and send raging Mississippi River waters spilling onto 200 square miles of Southeast Missouri farmland.

"I've ordered the district commander to operate the project," Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said Monday at an outdoor, 5 p.m. news conference located along the floodway a few miles north of Wyatt, Mo. Later a Corps representative said the blast could come even earlier.

Walsh said his decision was based on an "enormous, unprecedented" amount of pressure on the system created by record-setting rains that have pummeled the region for days. The gauge at Cairo, Ill., surpassed the 61 feet required to activate the plan. That mark was up 1.37 feet since Sunday to 61.52, a level it was not first expected to reach until Wednesday.

Walsh gave the order to activate the floodway to the corps' Memphis District commander, Col. Vernie Reichling. Crews were still working, he said, to load the sections of pipe that are burrowed into the levee with the blasting agent. The crews, made up of 150 members of the Corps of Engineers, were expected to be done by Monday afternoon, but had to be pulled off the levee overnight. Lightning had created unsafe conditions for the workers, Reichling said, because they were working with explosives.

The corps is already working to arm the two outflow discharge points, which are situated about 35 miles south near New Madrid, Mo. Those blasts will allow the waters to flow back into the Mississippi and are expected happen between early morning and 1 p.m. Tuesday, Reichling said.

The floodway, about 130,000 acres largely in Mississippi County, has been evacuated. Law enforcement and members of the Missouri National Guard have made sweeps through the area to ensure that, the colonel said.

"The floodway is clear," Reichling said. "But we will double check and triple check those coordinates before any detonations occur."

The U.S. Coast Guard has shut down navigation in the Mississippi River in the area of the crevasses and the Federal Aviation Administration has implemented a no-fly zone "bubble" near the inflow and outflow areas, Walsh said.

While the announcement ends days of waiting, Walsh said intentionally breaching the levee is only one component of a complex flood-fighting plan, which may include other levee breaches downriver in floodways in Louisiana.

"This doesn't end this historic flood," he said. "This is just the beginning. This is just one floodway."

All of the gauges up and down the river are breaking records, Walsh said. Corps officials are also going to have to start releasing more water out of the Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley because the corps has "held back all they can."

Floodwaters creep towards Illinois 3 on Sunday, May 1, 2011 in Olive Branch, Ill. Volunteers were scrambling to build a sandbag wall to protect homes on the opposite side of the highway. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan, Alan Rogers)

Reservoirs along the upper Mississippi River will also have to release more water, as they are in danger of overtopping, he said.

Several officials from Mississippi County expressed disappointment about Walsh's decision. Farmers have worried that the water will inundate their prime farmland and render much of it useless for at least a generation. But Walsh said he felt he had no choice, with forecasts calling for more rain and more feet on flood gauges.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, said the blowing of the levee was an "unacceptable risk."

"The New Madrid floodway is not a failsafe for the rest of the Mississippi River Basin," Emerson said in a prepared statement issued following the news conference. "The likelihood of dramatic flooding at other points along the river has not been changed by the decision today, but opening the floodway guarantees that the people living and working in the New Madrid floodway will suffer. We have a long, long road ahead of us. The certain damage to homes, buildings and productive farmland will take years to undo. I have high expectations that the Corps go above and beyond to aid the recovery effort for the people and communities affected by this disaster." Emerson said she was relieved, however, from a conversation she had with U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack told her today that farmers would be covered by insurance for their losses. She said that institutes a change in policy.

Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore said blowing the levee wasn't something he -- or many people in the county -- wanted to see happen.

"But you know, I think mother nature had a lot to do with it," he said. "If this rain would have held off and not dumped another two or three inches on us, I think we might have had a shot at it."

smoyers@semissourian.com

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Wyatt, MO

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