Cairo residents relieved by Birds Point decision, other Ill. towns still dealing with flooding

Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Alexander County Sheriff's deputies check vehicles as they enter and exit the U.S. 51 tunnel on Sunday, May 1, 2011 in Cairo, Ill. Residents were ordered to evacuate Saturday, and by Sunday evening Mayor Judson Childs estimated 70 percent had left their homes. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan, Alan Rogers)

CAIRO, Ill. -- Packing up important city documents Monday, officials in Cairo were nervous and restless as river levels reached record highs and they waited on the government's decision to breach the Birds Point-New Madrid levee.

Relief came shortly after 5 p.m. when Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced the corps would activate the floodway starting later that night. The action, the corps said, will take pressure off an entire levee system as the Mississippi River takes on increasing water levels around the confluence with the Ohio River.

The breach, decreasing Ohio River levels across the next few days, will spare Southern Illinois towns like Cairo, a city that Monday was largely evacuated. Fewer than 100 people remained in the city after then-Mayor Judson Childs ordered a mandatory evacuation.

"I've always trusted that those who were sitting in the position to make this call were just simply trying to gather all the information and facts before they made the decision," said Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman, who was sworn into office shortly after 4 p.m. Monday. "Regrettably, there are those who have had to suffer from this wait, but it's just all a part of the process."

The Ohio River topped 61.5 feet by 6 p.m., blowing out the record of 59.5 set in 1937, the only other year the Birds Point-New Madrid spillway was activated.

Childs said Monday afternoon he was deeply concerned about Cairo and thought the corps' decision should have been made sooner.

"If it was up to me I would have blown the levee yesterday, the day before or the day before that," Childs said. "But it's not up to me, and I have to respect the decision of the corps."

Engineers with the corps believe breaching the levee could reduce the water levels at Cairo by about 4 feet in less than two days.

As river levels continued to rise Monday, numerous Alexander County roads were closed, including Highway 3 at Olive Branch, Ill., and at Tamms, Ill., Highway 127 was closed for the city to pump seep water. Emergency management in Alexander County reported just before 10 a.m. Monday a breach at a levee in Fayville just south of the railroad bridge near Thebes.

That caused even more water to hit the small Illinois town of Olive Branch, where families last week were fighting to save their homes. On Monday, the Alexander County Highway Department was working to load files and other equipment in vehicles to keep them safe from floodwaters.

'Everyone's affected'

Coleman recognized the Birds Point levee issue and the flooding is not just about saving Cairo.

"Myself, along with others, have gone out in the county and provided assistance to them. It's about all the people in this region. Everyone's affected by this," he said.

On its website, Ameren Illinois has activated its own emergency operations center and is working closely in communities such as Olive Branch and Thebes, Ill, where disconnects may be necessary due to flooding. When electrical substations become threatened, the company is switching electrical feeds, where possible, to alternate substations in order to maintain service, according to its website.

Any traffic in and out of Cairo on Monday was rerouted around the high school as water filled a low point in the road at Highway 51. Motorists could exit the city Monday night via Highway 37 north of Cairo, through Mounds and have access to Interstate 57. The interstate was also accessible from Highway 51, although water filled much of the roadway to the north and southbound on ramps.

Cairo police chief Gary Hankins urged any residents still in the city Monday to leave because of the conditions.

"It was a dire situation before, and now it's even more urgent," he said.

As a lifelong Cairo resident, 65-year-old Charles Koen said Monday after peering over the floodwall along the Ohio that he had no intentions of leaving the city -- with or without the Birds Point breach. The city is rich in history, said the Cairo physician who spent years as a civil rights activist in Southern Illinois.

"I've done a lot of research. ... We have the best levee system in America," he said.

While he understands law enforcement and the National Guard's warnings to evacuate, Koen said some Cairo residents just simply can't afford to leave.

"My family is staying in a hotel out of town. But not everyone can afford that at $80 or $85 a night," he said.

The Rev. Alex Brooks, who was with Koen Monday afternoon observing the river's height, said he also didn't see the need to evacuate, citing his confidence in the levee system. Both men were in favor of the levee breach but thought the decision should have come sooner.

"This city is going to grow and going to develop," Koen said. "We'll get through this."

Coleman, born and raised in Cairo, is also looking toward the future and restoring a "sense of normalcy" in the city. Still, he knows Cairo has a long way to go in their flood recovery if waters recede as the corps has predicted.

"We're going to stay here and fight until we've exhausted all means," he said. "I'm just hoping the camaraderie that has been shown as we've come into this and as we come out of this will continue."

The rising Ohio River was cause for concern for the Metropolis, Ill., mayor, too. On Monday, he recommended a voluntary evacuation. The river at Metropolis is forecast to rise five feet by Friday. At the current increase in river levels, restricted access in and out of Metropolis can be expected, according to a news release from the city's emergency management agency.

ehevern@semissourian.com

388-3635

Pertinent address:

Cairo, IL

Metropolis, IL

Tamms, IL

Olive Branch, IL

Map of pertinent addresses

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