Corps blows levee at Birds Point overnight

Tuesday, May 3, 2011
An explosion lights up the night sky as the the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blows an 11,000 foot hole in the Birds Point levee in Mississippi County, Mo. on Monday, May 2, 2011. Army Corps of Engineers' Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh gave the order to blow a two-mile hole into the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri, which will flood 130,000 acres of farmland in Missouri's Mississippi County but protect nearby Cairo, Ill. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, David Carson)

CHARLESTON, Mo. -- A brief but brilliant flash of light was followed by the roar of explosions Monday night as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ended days of speculation and hand-wringing by blowing the Birds Point levee.

With record-setting rains continuing to pummel the region, corps crews detonated the charges in 22 access wells along the earthen levee shortly after 10 p.m., opening up the floodway that is expected to offer relief to several beleaguered communities in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.

"We watched something historic and tragic," said Col. Vernie Reichling, commander of the corps' Memphis District. "We have executed the first phase of the plan. It was successful."

Corps officials say the breach should lower the flood gauge at Cairo by as much as four feet within the next 24 hours. Water should completely inundate the floodway in about that same time period, officials said.

By midnight Monday, the stage at Cairo had dropped from the record crest of 61.72 feet at 10 p.m. to 61.13 feet.

At the time of the breach, the corps had already begun work at the next phase, placing explosives into pipes along the levee's southern edge near New Madrid. The corps intended to blow a second spot overnight and a nearby third spot by midmorning today.

Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore watched the breaching, along with throngs of media. After, he called the explosions devastating.

"To me, it sounded like a chain reaction," he said. "You could tell the explosives were buried into the ground pretty good."

The 130,000-acre floodway is largely in Mississippi County and farmers in the floodway have worried for days about what the levee breach would do to what is otherwise considered some of the most prime farmland in Missouri.

"We'll see what blowing the levee does for everybody," Moore said. "If it saves lives, it will be worth it. As for us, we'll make it somehow."

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, the man who had been weighing the decision for days, said earlier in the day that his decision was based on an "enormous, unprecedented" amount of pressure on the system created by unrelenting rain. The gauge at Cairo, Ill., surpassed the 61 feet required to activate the plan, said Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission.

Walsh gave Reichling the order at about 5 p.m. to activate the floodway. At 5 p.m., crews were still working to load the sections of pipe 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 delay put off breaching the levee by several hours.

Law enforcement and members of the Missouri National Guard made last-minute sweeps through the area to ensure that the floodway's homes had been evacuated. The U.S. Coast Guard shut down navigation in the Mississippi River in the area of the crevasse and the Federal Aviation Administration implemented a no-fly zone "bubble" near the inflow area, Walsh said.

Walsh said intentionally breaching the levee is only one part 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. The corps is also going to have to start releasing more water out of Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley because the corps has "held back all they can."

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, a Cape Girardeau Republican, said the blowing of the levee was an "unacceptable risk."

"The New Madrid floodway is not a fail-safe for the rest of the Mississippi River Basin," Emerson said in a prepared statement issued following the 5 p.m. 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."

Emerson said she was relieved, however, from a conversation she had with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who told her Monday that farmers in the floodway would be covered by insurance for their losses. She said that institutes a change in policy.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill also said in a statement that other federal assistance would be made available to the farmers.

Robert Jackson is a member of the Mississippi County Commission who also farms 1,200 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans in the floodway. He said that he suspected that blowing the levee would happen.

"I was resigned to it," he said. "That's what happened in Mississippi County. There was a lot of anxiety, but that turned to resignation. We knew this was going to happen. We're just worried about what happens next."

smoyers@semissourian.com

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