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 a tiny 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.
Upstream 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.
At a spot along the Birds Point levee, 56-year-old Ray Presson looked through binoculars to see just how high the water stood at his 101-year-old home and the 2,400 acres he farms around it. Presson is staying with a cousin in nearby Charleston, and he's not sure when, or if, he'll get to go home.
``It could be three weeks. It could be two months,'' he said. ``The government's not giving us any kind of timetable.''
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 while driving his patrol car past jail inmates assigned to fill sandbags outside an auto-parts store.
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. Workers have been fortifying the concrete and earthen barrier with thousands of sand bags.
Memphis could see a near-record crest of 48 feet on May 10, just inches lower than the record of 48.7 feet in 1937. Water from the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers has already seeped into parts of the suburbs, and some mobile home parks were inundated.
Flooding fears prompted Shelby County authorities to declare an emergency for 920,000 residents. Authorities blocked some suburban streets, and about 220 people were staying in shelters.
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. Gov. Haley Barbour started warning people last week to take precautions if they live in flood-prone areas near the river. He compared the swell of water moving downriver to a pig moving through a python.
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh — the man ultimately responsible for the decision to go through with breaking the Missouri levee — has indicated that he may not stop. In recent days, Walsh has said he might also make use of other downstream basins surrounded by levees that can intentionally be opened to divert floodwaters.
Unlike the Missouri levee, these floodways can be opened using gates designed for the purpose, not explosives.
Among the structures that could be tapped are the 58-year-old Morganza floodway near Morgan City, La., and the Bonnet Carre floodway about 30 miles north of New Orleans. The Morganza has been pressed into service just once, in 1973. The Bonnet Carre, which was christened in 1932 has been opened nine times since 1937, most recently in 2008.
After Memphis, the Mississippi River is expected to crest May 12 at Helena, Ark., and further south in the following days. Forecasters predict record levels at the towns of Vicksburg and Natchez, Miss.
High water has already shut down nine river casinos in northwest Mississippi's Tunica County, where about 600 residents have been evacuated from flood-prone areas on the inside of the levee, said county spokesman Larry Liddell.
``We're concerned, but as long as the levee holds we'll be all right. And we don't have any doubt that the levee is going to hold,'' Liddell said. ``We have the strongest levees in the country.''
Retired Major Gen. Tom Sands, a former president of the Mississippi River Commission and former Army Corps engineer, said the corps was pursuing a plan to manage the high water with spillways and other release valves, such as hundreds of relief wells that take water out of the river.
The Misssissippi River is carrying about 2.3 million cubic feet of water per second, and the levee system along it was designed to handle 3 million cubic feet of water per second at the Old River Control Structure, a massive floodgate north of Baton Rouge to keep the Mississippi River from diverting course and flowing into the Atchafalaya River.
Back in Missouri, Mark and Rebecca Dugan took pictures atop the Birds Point levee of their farmland — 3,000 acres. This year's wheat was a bumper crop and ready for harvest. Mark figures it was worth $350,000 to $400,000. All told, he estimates he will lose $1.8 million in gross revenue from the breach.
The couple said the government owes it to landowners below the levee to make full reparations, but both were skeptical it would happen.
"What do they say are the nine scariest words in the English language?'' Rebecca Dugan said, ```I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' ``
Walsh acknowledged it could be late summer or early fall before the water fully drains off the land. Sediment and moisture could do lasting damage.
``This is where generations and generations live,'' Walsh said. ``I understand that, but this was one of the relief valves for the system. We were forced to use that valve.''
EARLIER STORY: Metropolis keeps sandbagging
METROPOLIS, Ill. — Volunteers and residents in Superman's adoptive hometown of Metropolis muscled together more sandbags Tuesday as the still-rising Ohio River threatened to further swamp the tourist haven where some people had turned to canoes instead of cars for conveyance.
Yet amid the sweaty filling of sandbags, there was cause for jubilance in Metropolis and other flood-endangered towns along the Ohio: Days of pounding rain have given way to welcome sunshine expected to linger into the week, and the government's blowing up of a southeastern Missouri levee to lower the river showed signs that it had done its job.
A day after Metropolis' mayor advised the city's 6,500 residents to consider heading to higher ground, the Ohio measured 54.63 feet — about the same level it had been Monday night, when the Army Corps of Engineers blasted open the levee as a relief valve near where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet.
Without that breach, the river was forecast to have steadily crept up to a crest of more than 58 feet, some three feet higher than its latest expected peak Thursday of 55.5 feet. Flood stage there is 39 feet.
A similar effect was noted down the Ohio in Cairo, where the river level that already had broken the 1937 record had been expected to reach 63 feet, just one foot lower than the floodwall for the 2,800-resident town. But as of midday Tuesday, the Ohio was at 60.2 feet — about a foot a half lower than it was at the time of the breach — and was forecast to keep falling to 59.4 feet by Saturday. That would still be more than 19 feet above flood stage.
``It's showing in our graphs that (the breach) had a pretty decisive impact,'' said Rick Shanklin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Paducah, Ky., just across the river from Metropolis.
That percussion of Monday night's levee blast — a series of thundering, orange fireballs — rumbled the ground as far as 40 miles away in Metropolis, leaving many in the Massac County town that claims Superman as its favorite son believing there was an earthquake.
While it was dry in Metropolis' kitschy downtown, including the 15-foot bronze statue of the comic-book hero standing sentry in Superman Square, many homes and businesses on side streets had given in to the Ohio, which last week forced the lingering closure of the city's Harrah's casino.
The river's rise, though slowed by the sacrificing of the Missouri levee, had Metropolis' faithful — along with National Guard troops and outsiders — adding to the more than 400,000 sandbags Mayor Billy McDaniel says have been cranked out since April 25 in the town.
While working one of several Metropolis sandbagging stations, Jim Parmely figured there was no other choice.
``A lot of people are going to lose their homes, but a lot of people aren't giving up this easy, either,'' the 51-year-old worker on a tugboat said, refusing to pause his shovel. ``Anybody sitting around on their couch at a time like this don't have much salt in my book.''
Just off of the town square, Chuck Peebles was paddling up the street, relying on a friend's canoe to get to and from his apartment above Kristy Stephenson's now-flooded reception hall. Peebles hadn't been forced out, accessing his digs by way of a fire escape, and didn't seem to mind floating around a town known for a character who often travels by flight.
``I'm an outdoorsman anyway,'' said Peebles, decked out in sunglasses and a straw hat as Stephenson came to say hello. She was feeling upbeat about the break from days of rain — and blessed by the levee break the previous night that she said ``saved a good number of people in this town, at least their homes.''
``I hate it for the people in Missouri who've been displaced, but we've definitely been helped,'' said Stephenson, 40.
Downriver in Cairo, Police Chief Gary Hankins echoed that.
At the southern edge of that largely evacuated town, rising water that was overtaking U.S. 51 leading to a river bridge had sparked fears by Monday night that the floodwaters would work the downward slope of the city's main thoroughfare and inundate the city. A sandbag wall 4 feet tall was hastily erected across the road.
When he surveyed that area Tuesday, Hankins heralded that the water had retreated at least a foot.
``Things look slightly better, but we're not out of the woods,'' he said while inmates kept filling sandbags outside an auto-parts store.
Pounding rains over previous days manifested themselves there in other ways. On the other edge of Cairo, the towering slope of a Canadian National railroad line that runs across a tunnel offering entry to the city gave way Tuesday morning, complicating the problems of the stretch that already had been closed for a week because of the Ohio's historic levels.
EARLIER STORY: Corps breaks levee in attempt to save Cairo
LANGLEY, Ark. — After a few short explosions and flashes of orange light, the Mississippi River began pouring through a wide hole in a giant earthen levee intentionally blown open by Army engineers trying to save a small Illinois town.
The Army Corps of Engineers set off charges inside the levee near Cairo, Ill., after nightfall Monday, sacrificing 130,000 acres of rich farmland and about 100 homes in Missouri to spare the community of 2,800.
Travis Williams, 34, a farmer who owns more than 1,000 acres now under water, said his home is safe because it’s on “the good side of the levee.”
“It’s a life-changing event,” Williams said. “My heart goes out to all the farmers who lost their land and homes.”
Hours after the blast, the water level at Cairo was dropping rapidly. Before the levee was breached, the river stood at 61.72 feet and rising. But Tuesday morning, it had fallen to 60.4 feet and was expected to decline to 59.4 feet by Saturday.
The explosions blew a two-mile gap in the levee, sending a great torrent of muddy water into the farm country below. By Tuesday morning, the water had risen to the top of some houses. A tiny village called Pin Hook was completely flooded.
From the air, the vast flooded area resembled a shiny lake, reflecting the sky like an enormous mirror.
Farmers and nearby residents of gathered to survey the scene shortly after dawn. A small cluster of cattle stood grazing on the slope of the levee, and National Guard soldiers patrolled the area.
Billy and Tammy Suggs, who live in the neighboring community of Wyatt, opened the village’s tiny town hall so people would have a place to gather when the blast occurred. It was a lot stronger than they expected, knocking out windows in several homes.
“We went around putting boards up to keep the rain out,” Billy Suggs said.
But even as the danger seemed to ease somewhat around Cairo, floodwaters were rising downriver, including in Memphis, Tenn. And the demolition of the Birds Point levee did nothing to ease those concerns.
Throughout western Tennessee, rivers that feed into the Mississippi have been backed up due to heavy rains and because the Mississippi cannot take any more water. In suburban Memphis, some streets were blocked, and some 175 people filled a church gymnasium to await potential record flooding.
In Arkansas, six Boy Scouts became stranded by high water in a forest near an area where 20 people died in a flash flood last summer. A National Guard helicopter plucked the boys and two Scoutmasters from the Albert Pike Recreation Area at daybreak Tuesday.
To stem the rising rivers, the Army Corps officer in charge of the levee demolition project has said he might make use of other downstream “floodways” — basins surrounded by levees that can be opened to divert floodwaters.
Among those that could be tapped are the 58-year-old Morganza floodway near Morgan City, La., and the Bonnet Carre floodway about 30 miles north of New Orleans. The Morganza has been pressed into service just once, in 1973. The Bonnet Carre, which was christened in 1932, has been opened up nine times since 1937, the most recent in 2008.
Officials in Louisiana and Mississippi are warning that the river could bring a surge of water unseen since 1927.
The corps has said about 241 miles of levees along the Mississippi River between Cape Girardeau, Mo., and the Gulf of Mexico need to be made taller or strengthened. The volume of water moving down the river would test the levee system south of Memphis into Louisiana.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a major flood down the Mississippi River,” said George Sills, a former Army Corps engineer and levee expert in Vicksburg, Miss. “This is the highest river in Vicksburg, Miss., since 1927. There will be water coming by here that most people have never seen in their lifetime.”
Engineers carried out the blast on the Missouri levee after spending hours pumping liquid explosives into the floodwall. The blast allowed water to pour into the river basin like a bathtub. Two subsequent blasts further south on the levee, both scheduled for Tuesday, were aimed at allowing some of that water to escape back into the Mississippi.
The blasts became necessary after another onslaught of rain Sunday and Monday. Parts of southern Missouri have received more than 20 inches of rain in the past 11 days.
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, who made the decision to blast the levee, said that with the Ohio River now expected to reach 63 feet in Cairo — just a foot under the top of the floodwall — he had no choice.
“Making this decision is not easy or hard,” Walsh said. “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.”
Missouri officials fought hard to stop the plan, filing court actions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Emerson, of nearby Cape Girardeau, stood beside Walsh as he announced his decision Monday, but she was clearly unhappy.
“We’re uprooting families that have been here six generations and you don’t even know if it’s going to work,” said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who with Missouri’s two senators, sent a letter urging the Army Corps to fully restore the levee and the floodway “in full, without delay or red tape and without uncertainty of further hardship.”
The explosion came just before 10 p.m. and lasted only a few seconds. Reporters watched from about a half-mile off the river.
In largely evacuated Cairo, Police Chief Gary Hankins watched the orange flashes and was hopeful.
“We had periods here where there were lulls, but it seems like lately we couldn’t catch a break,” he said. “Maybe it seems now like we might be at a turning point. This sort of makes it easier to be optimistic.”
On the other side of the river, Mississippi County, Mo., commissioner Robert Jackson said farewell to his family’s 1,500 acres of farmland. But he also tried to stay positive.
“We can’t start drying up until we finish getting wet,” he said. “I hope this mission accomplishes what they wanted it to, and the sun will shine again.”