CAIRO, Ill. – The U.S. Supreme Court on Sunday refused to halt a plan by the Army Corps of Engineers to blast open a levee to relieve the rain-swollen Mississippi River even as the Illinois town at risk of flooding was cleared out.
As Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito issued his ruling, struggling Cairo near the confluence of Ohio and Mississippi rivers resembled a ghost town. Illinois National Guard troops went door to door with law enforcers to enforce the mayor’s “mandatory” evacuation order the previous night.
About 20 to 30 families were allowed to stay – a courtesy extended only to adults – in the 2,800-resident town after signing waivers acknowledging that they understood the potential peril, National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Heath Clark said.
“If you’re (possibly) losing everything and don’t know where to go, you wouldn’t want to leave, either,” he said.
Alito did not comment in denying Missouri’s request to block the corps’ plan. Alito handles emergency requests from Missouri and other states in the 8th Circuit in the Midwest.
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, the corps officer in charge of deciding whether to breach the levee, ordered field crews to move barges to the Missouri side of the river and begin loading pipes in the levee with explosives in anticipation of blowing up a two-mile section just downriver from Cairo.
He stressed that the decision to do so has not been made.
Walsh said it would take 20 hours to get the pipes filled, during which time he will review conditions before deciding what to do. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, whose bid to derail the corps’ plan in recent days included failed requests to a federal district judge and an appellate court, took the case to the Supreme Court, noting “it is the responsibility of this office to pursue every possible avenue of legal review.” Koster’s office did not immediately return a call seeking comment after the court’s ruling.
Corps officials are monitoring water levels and haven’t decided whether to go through with the blast to blunt the rise of the Ohio, which on Sunday afternoon had risen to 59.93 feet at Cairo – eclipsing the 1937 record there of 59.5 feet.
The river was expected to crest Tuesday at 61.5 feet and stay there for days. Cairo’s floodwall can handle 64 feet.
Emergency-management officials in Cairo focused warily on a “sand boil” – an area of river seepage that’s a potential sign of trouble – that pooled to 40 feet wide and 12 feet deep about 100 yards from the floodwall.
Marty Nicholson, Alexander County’s emergency management coordinator, said the boil was in check, resembling a doughnut surrounded by a mound of plastic-covered rock and sandbags.
“We’ve had sand boils before, but never this big,” Nicholson said, noting that some 70 percent of the 9,600-resident county was flooded.