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Record-breaking floods force engineers to blow up Mississippi River levee

On Monday evening, the Army Corps of Engineers will flood farms in southern Missouri to save river towns, after a legal challenge by the Missouri attorney general failed Sunday.

By Staff writer / May 2, 2011

Jim Lloyd, operations team leader with the US Army Corps of Engineers, shows the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway on April 29. The Mississippi River Commission on Monday gave the corps the go-ahead to blow a hole in a Mississippi River levee and flood Missouri farmland to spare a flood-threatened Illinois town upstream.

Fred Lynch / Southeast Missourian / AP


The head of the Mississippi River Commission has given the go-ahead to blow a hole in a 56-mile long levee along the Mississippi River tonight, in an attempt to keep record floodwaters from swamping river towns near the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

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The announcement late Monday afternoon caps days of preparation – and legal wrangling – over the move. The breaches, scheduled to be blasted Monday between 9 p.m. and midnight CDT, would mark only the second time in nearly 82 years that the levee, part of the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway, has been activated.

"We have exceeded the record stage already, at Cairo," said Major Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the commission, in a prepared statement announcing the decision. "We are on a course to break records at many points as the crest moves through the system."

"I don't have to like it, but we must use everything we have in our possession ... to prevent a more catastrophic event," he said.

Blowing this section of levee "does not end this historic flood," he said, but engineers say they expect the effort to reduce flood levels by up to four feet at Cairo, Ill., the community in the most immediate danger.

At a briefing over the weekend, Walsh held out the possibility of activating other floodways along the lower Mississippi, if conditions warranted.

The floodway

The Birds Point-New Madrid floodway sits on the west bank of the Mississippi, just below the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. It's meant to be a spillway, a broad expanse of former floodplain west of the river. There, floodwaters can spread laterally rather than remaining constricted within the heavily leveed main channel. It allows the river to flood large areas of farmland, reducing water heights upstream and downstream of the floodway.

The floodway is bounded on the east by a levee that hugs the riverbank, and to the west by a 36-mile-long levee. At the upstream end, the levees meet, and then the western levee curves west and south as the Mississippi swings east. At its widest point, the floodway is 11 miles across. Altogether, the floodway covers some 130,000 acres of farmland, all of which will be flooded after the hole is blown near Birds Point.

At the southern (downstream) end, near New Madrid, a gap 1,500 feet wide separates the ends of the two levees, channeling the floodwaters back into the Mississippi's main channel.

Floodway plan: Blow a hole in the levee


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