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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.

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The floodway's standard operating plan calls for the Army Corps of Engineers to move barges, laden with explosives, into position along the riverfront levee whenever flooding reaches 59 feet at Cairo. By the time the river reaches 60 feet, the explosives should be set in place. The Mississippi River Commission can give the OK to breach the levee when the river rises to 61 feet at Cairo, with higher levels forecast.

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By noon on Monday, the Ohio River at Cairo had reached 61.15 feet. The National Weather Service's Advanced Hydrological Prediction Service estimates the Ohio will crest at slightly more than 63 feet, Wednesday night.

By allowing the water to spread out over the man-made basin, corps officials estimate that they can reduce flood levels at Cairo, Ill., currently the most seriously threatened river town, by up to four feet.

The move also would reduce the height of the flood crest that will continue to work its way south along the Mississippi once it leaves the Ohio.

History of the floodway

The floodway, home to about 300 people (now evacuated), is one of three built after a devastating flood along the lower Mississippi River in 1927.

The corps first used the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway 10 years later, during the Great Flood of 1937, which reached record levels along the Ohio River at Cairo, Ill. Some 3,000 people then lived within the floodway, and had to be evacuated. When the flood stage reached 58 feet at Cairo, the head of the Mississippi River Commission gave the OK to breach the levee.

The effort paid off, reducing the flood stage near Cairo by roughly seven feet. But according to a commission history of the floodway, the 1937 activation also prompted the corps's chief engineer at the time to insist that "no plan is satisfactory which is based on deliberately turning floodwaters upon the home and property of people."

Monday's decision comes after the US Supreme Court denied Missouri's request for an injunction that would have halted efforts to breach the levee. Missouri Attorney General Chris Kostler took his case to the high court over the weekend after a federal district court judge in Cape Girardeau, Mo., refused last Friday to block the preparations of the Army Corps of Engineers.

During that proceeding, the attorneys general for Illinois and Tennessee filed motions in support of the corps's efforts.

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