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Missouri farmland swamped after levee breach to help Cairo, Ill.

Missouri farmland swamped after levee breach to help Cairo, Ill.

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UPDATED 1:45 p.m. with detonation to breach New Madrid levee.

MISSISSIPPI COUNTY, Mo. • Miles of milo fields once protected by the Birds Point levee were under several feet of chocolate-colored water by noon Tuesday.

It swirled around utility poles and rose to within several feet of barn roofs. Twelve miles south, along Highway 80, a Missouri Army National Guard Humvee blocked a secondary levee bordering the spillway.

Farmers walked up the hill, hoping to get an idea of damage to their land. They worried about homes being swept away, flooded grain bins and lost crops.

But they would have to wait days to assess their losses.

"It seems to me like they are destroying more than they are protecting," said Gary Wilson, 77, as he stood atop the levee and watched water in the spillway pour over the asphalt road a few hundred yards from him.

Wilson owns 160 acres nearly a mile to the north. He wanted to walk along the top of the levee, but was told he could not.

"There is no justification for this," Wilson said.

After the detonation of part of the Birds Point levee Monday night to ease pressure from the swelling Mississippi River, aerial photographs showed farmhouses, barns and outbuildings in the middle of fields with water rising around them. Some buildings already were partially submerged; others stood on islands of dry land as the water crept closer.

Tuesday afternoon, the Army Corps of Engineers blew out part of a levee near New Madrid, Mo., to allow water flowing in at Birds Point to eventually make its way back to the Mississippi River. The detonation could be heard and felt about 20 miles away in Sikeston, Mo.

Also Tuesday, a group of 25 southeast Missouri farmers is suing the federal government over its decision to blow a hole in the levee.

The Southeast Missourian reports that the lawsuit claims that the government violated the farmers' rights by taking their land without adequate compensation. The lawsuit seeks class-action status.

Cape Girardeau attorney J. Michael Ponder, the lawyer who filed the suit, is from Charleston and said he has cousins who were wiped out by the levee breach.

The corps has said that flowage easements attached to the farmers' property deeds allowed them to breach the levee.


Torrents of rain swept across farm fields and boat lights glowed red on the swollen Mississippi Monday night. Then a row of orange flashes and a series of booms echoed across the levee.

The smell of explosives hung in the air as Col. Vernie L. Reichling, Memphis District Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, announced to a caravan of reporters that the corps had successfully set off several explosions to weaken the levee and allow the Mississippi River to rush across 130,000 acres of Missouri farm land.

Reichling called the move historic and tragic.

Officials said that allowing water to fill the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway would relieve pressure and lower record flooding upstream at Cairo, Ill., where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers converge.

And by 7:30 a.m, that was happening. The National Weather Service said before the breach, the Cairo level was at 61.72 feet and rising. By Tuesday morning, the river was at 60.62 feet and was expected to keep falling to 59.4 feet by Saturday.

But the plan required evacuating about 300 homes in the floodway and sparked a legal skirmish between Missouri and Illinois attorneys general.

On Monday afternoon, corps Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said the levee system was "under enormous and unprecedented pressure" and needed relief as soon as possible.

The floodway plan has not been used since 1937, when the water rose to 59.5 feet at Cairo. That record stood until Sunday when the Ohio River topped 60 feet there. More rain fell through the day. The National Weather Service predicted a crest at 63 feet on Thursday without a breach of the Birds Point levee. Officials hoped the levee action would drop that crest by 3 to 4 feet.

The corps had been closely evaluating the rising river levels all weekend, while continuing preparations.

Lightning on Sunday night slowed their work. By 5 p.m. Monday, the crew pumping the liquid explosives was only 80 percent finished. That pushed the first explosion just past 10 p.m. Monday.

Walsh said the levee breach would not mark the end of the high water, which would be around for a while.

"Nobody has seen this type of flood," he said.


Mississippi County farmers were concerned about how long it would take to recover from the silt the river would leave on their fields when it receded.

Bob Byrne, 59, farms 550 acres below the Missouri levee.

"It's a sickening feeling," he said. "They're talking about not getting the water off until late July or early August. That knocks out a whole season."

In the 1980s, when the floodway plan was under review, Bennett said, officials estimated that activating the floodway would cost residents and the county $300 million. Today, he said, losses probably will total close to $1 billion.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, said Monday that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had assured her that farmers in the floodway who had crop insurance would be compensated as if this man-made flood were a natural disaster. "I know that helps a lot of people, but not everybody," she said.

As for equipment and homes left behind, she said, "That's all down the rat hole."

Emerson joined Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Monday in urging federal officials to restore the floodway "in full, without delay or red tape and without uncertainty or further hardship upon those who will inevitably suffer in the Missouri Bootheel."

Walsh — the man ultimately responsible for the decision to go through with the plan — has indicated that he may not stop with the Missouri levee. In recent days, Walsh has said he might also make use of other downstream "floodways" — basins surrounded by levees that can intentionally be blown open 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.

"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."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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