US army blasts holes in Missouri levee to save town from flooding destruction

May 3, 2011

Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian

Engineers have blown up a levee in the mid-west, hoping to save a historic town from destruction by raging flood waters – but condemning 130,000 acres (53,300 hectares) of rich agricultural farmland.


Late on Monday night, the US army corps of engineers began detonating charges embedded in the levee at Birds Point, Missouri, in order to create a 2,000-ft breach. The blasts were expected to lower the waters of the Mississippi by up to 7ft, thus sparing the city of Cairo, Illinois. But the breach in the levee was also expected to drown a vast expanse of rich farmland under water, sand and silt. Ninety homes were also at risk.



The decision – which has been fiercely contested in the courts – set a fading town of 2,800 mainly African American residents against relatively well-off farmers. “Making this decision is not easy or hard,” major general Michael Walsh, commander of the army corps, told reporters. “It’s simply grave – because the decision leads to loss of property and livelihood, either in a floodway or in an area that was not designed to flood.”


Cairo, which lies on the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, was an important steamboat port in the 1800s, and served for a few months as the headquarters for the union armies of Ulysses S Grant early in the civil war. But the town is long past its heyday, and the decision to save the town outraged Missouri farmers and state officials who had fought to block the demolition in court.


Stephen Tilley, the speaker of the Missouri house, even went so far as to suggest that Cairo was so dilapidated as to be expendable. When asked by a reporter which he would rather see underwater, the town or farmland, Tilley replied emphatically: “Cairo. I’ve been there. Trust me, Cairo.”



But the legal battle was exhausted on Sunday night when the US supreme court refused to hear an emergency appeal from Missouri’s attorney general.


By Monday afternoon, with more rainfall straining the 64ft floodwall, the town was deserted. Almost all of the residents of Cairo had already been evacuated, and were waiting to see if the homes they had left behind would be saved or left for the flood waters.


“It was equal to having been in Vietnam,” said Mattie Woods, 63, who was born and raised in the town. “We have had flooding before, but we have never really faced total disaster. This one was full devastation for all of us.”


A number of people who tried to return for belongings earlier on Monday were ordered to go back. “They just weren’t letting anyone in,” said resident Eddie Smith.


Mr Smith had left his home after spending several anxious days watching the water rise around the tyres of his car. By the time he left last Tuesday (a week ago), “the water was coming right up to the front step,” he said. “I’ve never seen the river do this before.”

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