The Army Corps of Engineers has blown up a stretch of levee that was part of a 1930’s plan to control flooding on the Mississippi River. Now levels on the river are going down around the Illinois town of Cairo, but there is a price, and farmers across the river will pay it.
As Jacob McCleland of member station KRCU reports, generations of Missouri farmers have known that a man-made breach could easily flood them out.
JACOB MCCLELAND: Agriculture is king in Mississippi County, Missouri, where mile after mile of row crops, irrigation pivots, and grain silos dot the landscape. It’s no different than in farm counties throughout the Midwest, where corn, wheat and soy beans form the basis of the economy – but not this year, not since the Army Corps of Engineers blew a two-mile-wide hole in the Birds Point levee, flooding half of the county’s farmland.
Mr. ED MARSHALL (Farmer): To the economy in our area, there’s land over there that will never, you know, recover – ever.
MCCLELAND: Ed Marshall is a farmer here who now has about 8,000 acres underwater. He recognizes the Corps’ need for action, and like many farmers here in Charleston, he’s resigned to the fact that the Corps will continue to operate the floodway for generations to come. But Marshall and others fault the Corps’ procedures: detonating explosives over a two-mile stretch of levee, allowing for a crush of water to pound onto the spillway.
Mr. MARSHALL: When you blow a hole that big, that vast, and that amount of water, you’re talking, you know, two miles with a 23, 24-foot difference in elevation from where that’s water coming. It’s like a small tsunami. I mean, it’s a two-mile tsunami that comes in there.
MCCLELAND: Brad and Susan Hequembourg agree. We’re driving to check out the setback levee just a couple of miles outside Charleston. Brad waves to everybody we see, stopping his truck from time to time to heckle neighbors or friends.
Mr. BRAD HEQUEMBOURG: Any water up there?
Unidentified Man #1: No.
Unidentified Man #2: No. Dry as a bone.
MCCLELAND: As far as Brad Hequembourg is concerned, it’s the explosions that are the problem. Instead of blowing up the north end of the levee, he and others want the Corps to allow slow flooding.
Mr. HEQUEMBOURG: This spillway is only going to displace so much water. So why not go ahead and open it up from the south end and let it back in? If you let it back in, there’s not going to be any damage. It’s going to be minimal.
MCCLELAND: The Hequembourgs and others here know that there are big risks involved to farming in a place like this. Many of their deeds contain flowage easements, allowing the Corps to release water at will, and folks seem to recognize that it’s for the greater good to flood this big, 130,000-acre chunk of their county.
But Lee Goodin and 24 other farmers here have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers.
Mr. LEE GOODIN (Farmer): Well, they have easement to flood it, but they don’t have the easement to damage it, you know, and to destroy it.
MCCLELAND: The Corps says that its actions were necessary to reduce flooding throughout the entire Mississippi tributary system.
While water flows into Missouri fields, a nearby Illinois community was saved. Cairo sits at the southernmost tip of Illinois, where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet. It’s the immediate community with the most at stake. If the Corps didn’t act, Cairo would have been inundated with 20 feet of water.
About 150 of Cairo’s residents are taking shelter at a Red Cross evacuation center at Shawnee Community College. Evacuees have spent a week sleeping on cots without any of the comforts of home. Carolyn Bellamy says that the shelter was abuzz with rumors about blowing up the Birds Point levee in recent days. Few allowed themselves to believe that the Corps would actually move forward with the detonation.
Ms. CAROLYN BELLAMY: They kept saying, we’re going to do it, then we’re not going to do it. We’re going to do it. I was confusing myself, just like everybody else. And when they said, finally, we’re going to do it and I heard the boom, I was like, OK, they did it.
MCCLELAND: Bellamy was pinning her last hopes on the Corps’ action. Water was seeping through the floodwalls, and sand boils were forming throughout town. Without relief, much of Cairo was bound to be destroyed. Now the concern is for other towns along the Mississippi, as the water continues its path to the sea.
For NPR News, I’m Jacob McCleland.