WYATT, Mo. (AP) — 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.”
Associated Press writers Cain Burdeau in New Orleans and Maria Sudekum Fisher in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press