On Ill.-Mo. Border, Mississippi River Causes Dilemma
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Rising water levels along the Ohio and mighty Mississippi River is causing a mighty big dilemma for officials along the Illinois-Missouri border. At issue is the Birds Point levee. The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to blow a two-mile wide hole in the Missouri side of the levee. The reason, to protect Cairo, Illinois, a town of 3,000 residents located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
But saving Cairo would unleash a wall of water that could swallow up as much as 130,000 acres of prime Missouri farmland and flood as many as 100 homes. Missouri officials tried unsuccessfully to prevent the Army Corps from blowing the levee and took their fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
For more on the story, we're joined by Jacob McCleland of KRCU. And, Jacob, help me understand what's going on right now on either side of that levee in question.
JACOB McCLELAND: Well, right now, the city of Cairo, Illinois, has been evacuated. It was evacuated two nights ago, so there are about 100 people that are left in that community.
That community is in direct danger right now. They've had, right now, 60 feet of water up on their city walls, which is incredibly dangerous. And there have been sand boils that have been popping up in the community as well. One of the sand boils in questions has been described as the size of a swimming people.
NORRIS: Now, before you go on, I just - I want to hear what's going on the other side, but many of our listeners may have never heard this term before. Sand boil, is that caused when water starts seeping up through the ground?
McCLELAND: Exactly. It's when water from the river starts coming up from under the levee or the floodwall. And it's an enormous problem right now, obviously, in Cairo if the levees or the floodwalls in Cairo fail. I've heard estimates from the Army Corps of Engineers that as much as 20 feet of water could end up rushing through that community, which would really put just about everything in Cairo underwater.
NORRIS: And on the Missouri side, what's going on there?
McCLELAND: It's just wet right now. Everything is inundated. The ground has been saturated for about a week now. We have had so much rain in this area. And, you know, it's just so uncommon that you have both the Ohio and the Mississippi both at such high levels at the same time.
NORRIS: What's the trigger point for blowing the hole in that levee, and how will they do it?
McCLELAND: The Army Corps of Engineer's operational plan calls for blowing the levee when the Cairo river gauge reaches 61 feet, which it did earlier today. So right now, the Army Corps of Engineers are pumping a slurry of explosives into pipes that have been drilled within the levee at Birds Point. Once they fill the explosives into the levee, Major General Michael Walsh will make the decision as to whether or not he wants to go ahead and blow up that levee.
Doing so will ease a lot of pressure on communities throughout Southern Illinois, Western Kentucky and Southern Missouri that have had so much water up on their floodwalls and up on their levees over the past week or so. It will really be felt system wide.
NORRIS: If the Army Corps blows that hole, there's a 35 mile-long floodway that would potentially take on a lot of water there, a lot of people who own land that's privately held there. Did the people who built there understand that this kind of thing might actually happen one day?
McCLELAND: I think so. And, you know, a lot of these people that live in the floodway have been there for generations. They've been there since before 1937, the last time that they ended up having to blow up the levee. But, you know, it's - 200 residents approximately that live in the area. I was just talking with a couple of farmers last night who have had their family farms in the floodway for generations. But you know what, they moved out 15 years ago. They still farm the land, but they live in nearby Charleston, Missouri. This is because they got tired of always having to evacuate and flee when river levels would get high again.
NORRIS: Jacob McCleland, thanks so much for talking to us.
McCLELAND: Thank you so much, Michele.
NORRIS: That's Jacob McCleland of KRCU. He joined us from Sikeston, Missouri.
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