WYATT, Mo. – The dramatic, late-night demolition of a huge earthen levee sent chocolate-colored floodwaters pouring onto thousands of acres of Missouri farmland Tuesday, easing the threat to an Illinois town being menaced by the Mississippi River.
But the blast near Cairo, Ill., did nothing to ease the risk of more trouble downstream, where the mighty river is expected to rise to its highest levels since the 1920s in some parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.
“We’re making a lot of unfortunate history here in Mississippi in April and May,” said Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. “We had the historic tornados, and now this could be a historic event.”
The Army Corps of Engineers was considering making similar use of other “floodways” – enormous basins surrounded by giant levees that can be opened to divert floodwaters.
A staccato series of explosions lit up the night sky Monday over the Mississippi with orange flashes and opened a massive hole in the Birds Point levee. A wall of water up to 15 feet high swiftly filled corn, soybean and wheat fields in southeast Missouri.
At Cairo, which sits precariously at the confluence of the swollen Mississippi and Ohio rivers, preliminary readings suggested the explosion worked.
But across the river, clearing skies gave a heartbreaking view of the inundation triggered by the demolition. The torrent swamped an estimated 200 square miles, washing away crop prospects for this year and damaging or destroying as many as 100 homes.
A group of 25 farmers sued the federal government Tuesday, arguing that their land had been taken without adequate compensation.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said farmers who had crop insurance will be eligible for government reimbursements if their land was flooded.
Other forms of help will be available for livestock producers and tree farmers under the same programs designed for natural disasters. People who lost homes may also be eligible for rural housing loans.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who stood behind the state’s failed legal fight to stop the destruction of the levee, said state leaders would do everything “within our power to make sure the levee is rebuilt and those fields, the most fertile fields in the heartland, are put back in production.”
By blowing the levee, the corps hoped to reduce the river level at Cairo and ease pressure on the floodwall protecting the town. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Mississippi had receded to 60.2 feet and continued to fall, a day after a record crest.
“Things look slightly better, but we’re not out of the woods,” Police Chief Gary Hankins said.
But if Cairo and other spots were dodging disaster, ominous flooding forecasts were raising alarm from southeast Missouri to Louisiana and Mississippi.
In Missouri, the town of Caruthersville was bracing for a crest of 49.7 feet later this week. The flood wall protecting the town can hold back up to 50 feet, but a sustained crest will pressure the wall.
Flooding fears prompted Tennessee’s Shelby County authorities to declare an emergency for 920,000 residents.
Farther south, the lower Mississippi River was expected to crest well above flood stages in a region still dealing with the aftermath of last week’s deadly tornadoes. Forecasters say the river could break records in Mississippi that were set during catastrophic floods in 1927 and 1937.
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