Engineers blast levee to save Illinois town from possible flood


Bill Johnson

Angler Jessie Wilson waded off the levee into what was the parking area on the Greenville, Miss. waterfront to fish on Monday.

Jim Salter and Jim Suhr

SIKESTON, Mo. — The Army Corps of Engineers planned to blow a nearly two-mile-wide hole in an earthen levee late Monday, unleashing a muddy torrent into empty farm fields in a desperate bid to save an Illinois town from rising floodwaters.

Engineers announced their intention to carry out the blast after spending hours pumping liquid explosives into the Birds Point levee near tiny Cairo, Ill. The first explosion was to happen not long after nightfall.

But doubts persisted about whether breaking open the levee would provide the relief needed. How much water would the blast really divert from the Mississippi River? And will authorities have to do the same thing at other trouble spots downstream?

Time was running short to find answers. Five more inches of rain fell overnight, further straining the flood wall protecting tiny Cairo, Ill.

The seemingly endless rain has overwhelmed rivers and strained levees, including one protecting Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

The high water has raised concerns about the strain on the floodwalls in Cairo and other cities. The agency has been weighing for days whether to blow open the Birds Point levee, which would inundate 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh — the man ultimately responsible for the decision to go through with the plan— has indicated that he may not stop there if blasting open the Missouri levee does not do the trick.

“This is an event that may use all of the resources that we have to control this level of flooding,” Walsh told reporters at a weekend briefing, describing the amount of water as “unprecedented.”