EAST PRAIRIE — As ominous as a floating hearse, twin barges creep up the Mississippi River carrying a payload of explosives bound for southeast Missouri and a levee facing the prospect of being sacrificed to spare a flood-threatened Illinois town just upriver.
The Army Corps of Engineers' tugboat-shoved shipments are to arrive Thursday, as Missouri stands poised to press a federal judge to block the corps from possibly blasting a gaping hole in the earthen berm to ease waters rising around Cairo, Ill., nestled where the swollen Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet.
Cairo's mayor, Judson Childs, says to go for it, that he prizes his city's 2,800 residents' lives more than perhaps 130,000 acres of farmland the Mississippi could swallow up if the Birds Point levee in Missouri's agriculturally based Mississippi County were to be blown open.
The thought sickens many around the levee and Missouri's top politicians, all complaining the floodwaters would leave a layer of silt on prized farmland that could take a generation to clear, damaging 100 homes in the process.
Caught in the middle is the Army Corps' Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh. Barring President Barack Obama's intervention, it's Walsh's call whether to doom the flood barrier. And Walsh spent 90 minutes Wednesday fielding complaints from dozens of southeast Missouri residents who packed a stuffy newspaper office in tiny East Prairie, just 12 miles from the Mississippi, and urged him to let them try fortifying the levee with sandbags.
Even as crews prepped the levee for the liquid explosives, Walsh insisted it's a decision he's not taking lightly.
"We have the best engineers and scientists working with us," doing the complicated calculations of how swiftly and how high the rivers will rise as more rains loom, Walsh said. While acknowledging to residents at the public forum that "all of your lives will be impacted," Walsh said he would rather use the controlled levee break to ease the floodwaters than do nothing and risk seeing a levee burst or be topped elsewhere where more lives and less farmland were at risk.
The area hasn't seen water this high since 1937, when the Ohio River at Cairo reached a record 59.5 feet. Cairo, which has a 64-foot downtown floodwall and earthen levees elsewhere to protect it, was staring Wednesday at a river level at more than 58 feet, with expectations it will reach 61.5 feet by this weekend.
Walsh's dilemma: The Ohio could remain at more than 60 feet for eight to 10 days, stressing not only on Cairo's levees but others in more densely populated areas. A floodway at Birds Point could lower the river levels and take the pressure off.
Army Corps crews by Wednesday were laying the groundwork for the explosives, a liquid mix of sodium perchlorate — often used to make ammunition — and aluminum powder. Crews then pump the slurry into pipes embedded into the levee in 1,000-foot lengths — each separated by 60-foot gaps — and accessible through manhole-like holes known as "fuse plugs" that are cut into the embankment, said Jim Lloyd, the corps' operations leader in Memphis.
The corps would use blasting caps with C-4 plastic explosives to set off the slurry, fracturing the levee's top end enough that it would weaken, allowing the river to bust through it.
As floodwaters fill up the floodway over the next 24 to 36 hours, a slurry-filled barge would make its way down to the levee's lower end and its contents would be injected into piping. That section could then be blasted open, creating an outlet for the trapped water, Lloyd said.
Anyone expecting a spectacular pyrotechnics show would be disappointed. The detonation is meant to merely create a fissure in the levee that the raging river can exploit, and "there won't be a lot of dirt flying" from the rain-saturated berm with enough mud to muffle the sound, Lloyd said.
Missouri government leaders argue the levee's destruction would flood an area stretching 30 miles north to south and up to 10 miles wide in points — farmland and property many who turned out for Wednesday's hearing said they could ill-afford to lose.
One man called blasting the levee "crazy." Another said letting the river loose on the farmland was like filling a teacup from a 10,000-gallon tank. East Prairie Mayor Kevin Mainord said, "It doesn't seem fair to anybody standing in this room."
"This is not a political issue; it is a people issue," added the region's Republican congresswoman, JoAnn Emerson, who along with Missouri's two senators has asked Obama to intervene. With the U.S. government strapped for cash, "there's no money to fix it afterward."
When it comes to lowering the rising rivers, Walsh said, "We're all fighting for inches."