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PHOTO GALLERY: Day-by-day coverage of 2011 flood — Day 4

Corps halts levee break preparations as Missouri, Illinois argue
Thursday, April 28, 2011 | 8:32 p.m. CDT; updated 9:15 p.m. CDT, Friday, April 29, 2011
Leaving their neighbor’s house, Joe Jones and his wife, Cheryl Jones, wade toward the high ground of the train tracks after helping load possessions into a moving truck in Morehouse on Thursday. Friends, family and neighbors all volunteered to help, even if their own houses were underwater.

CAPE GIRARDEAU — A federal judge who heard arguments over a plan to intentionally break a Mississippi River levee has left the bench without making a ruling.

Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr. heard arguments from attorneys for Missouri and the Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday on a corps proposal to blow a 2-mile-wide hole through the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri. The corps says breaking the levee would ease waters rising around the upstream town of Cairo, Ill., near the confluence of the swollen Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Missouri says the rush of water would ruin prime farmland, flood about 90 homes and displace 200 people.

Near the beginning of the hearing, Limbaugh said he would expedite the case given the circumstances.

But he left the bench Thursday evening without a decision.

The Army Corps of Engineers halted its preparations for intentionally breaking the Mississippi River levee Thursday

Illinois and the town of Cairo favor the move, arguing that the well-being of the town's 2,800 residents outweighs farmland that would be swallowed up in the rush.

Corps spokesman Jim Pogue said the agency stopped preparing for the break Thursday.

The river's crest at the Cairo flood wall could reach 60.3 feet — nearly a foot above its record high — as early as Sunday, he said. The wall protects the town up to 64 feet, but there's concern the crest could last for up to five days and create extra pressure on the wall.

"It's going to be touch and go for a while," Pogue said. "We're all holding our breath."

The torrent from the intentional break would destroy half of Mississippi County's cropland and "treat the residents there as squatters" who are unlikely to get compensation from the government or insurers because the break was man-made, Missouri assistant attorney general Jack McManus told federal judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr.

Edward Passarelli, an attorney with the U.S. Attorney's office in St. Louis representing the corps, told Limbaugh that Congress has given the corps the authority to take such drastic steps when it "deems it absolutely essential."

"Here we've got an important responsibility to protect the lives and the property of people in many states," Passarelli said.

Cairo hasn't seen water this high since 1937, when the Ohio River at the town reached a record 59.5 feet. Whether the flood wall could survive a sustained crest of more than 60 feet is at the heart of the corps' dilemma.

Corps crews on Wednesday started laying the groundwork for using explosives to create a roughly 2-mile-wide hole in the levee. The explosives are a liquid mix of sodium perchlorate — often used to make ammunition — and aluminum powder. Crews would 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.

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. 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.

Day 4: Day-by-day coverage of 2011 flood
Silt-covered leaves, formerly covered in water from the Black River, are now free from their watery prison on Thursday in Poplar Bluff. Floodwaters receded as rains halted in the city.
Britney Roberts scans the sky for clouds outside of the Black River Coliseum while she waits for word on the status of her home on Thursday. Roberts, who is pregnant, has been sleeping in the Coliseum for days while Poplar Bluff dries out.
Cranston Dunlap, left, stops to chat with fellow evacuee John Lopez on Thursday outside of the Black River Coliseum. While many of the people who were evacuated from their homes have been able to return, some are still waiting for word on their homes. "I hear it's muddy in there, and damp," said Lopez. "We gotta clean everything."
The Black River, seen from a levee just south of D Street in Poplar Bluff, has gone down slightly Thursday as a result a stop in precipitation.
A parking lot — awash in floodwater days prior — is now only pockmarked with puddles in Poplar Bluff on Thursday.
Officials from Greenville and Wayne County construct an earthen berm across the old Highway 67 on Thursday in an attempt at keeping the fast-rising water from nearby Wappapello Lake from inundating the town.
Heading to dry land to wait for the next truck of sandbags, Specialist Chris Mitchell and other soldiers of the 1140th Engineer Battalion wade through waist-deep water in Morehouse on Thursday. Water began entering the town late last night, however the flooding did not escalate until late Thursday morning.
Sandbags laid earlier are surpassed by floodwater in Morehouse on Thursday. By the end of the day, more than half of the town was effected by the floodwater.
From left: Joe Jones, Cheryl Jones, Rocky Chappell, Corey Tinnin, 17, and Jordan Chappell, 13, help move their neighbor's belongings into a moving truck in Morehouse on Thursday.
Donald Gautreaux, center left, and Jorden Kettles, center right, help load sandbags in Morehouse on Thursday. Neither Gautreaux nor Kettles live in Morehouse, but like many other volunteers came to help as flood waters rose.
Sargent Christopher Burr helps place sandbags around a Sewage Lift Station in Morehouse on Thursday. Soldiers in the 1140th Engineers Battalion filled and placed sandbags throughout the day attempting to protect elements of Morehouse’s infrastructure.
A truck stands abandoned in the middle of the street in Poplar Bluff on Thursday. While most of the city is slowly drying out due to a let up of rain, Park Avenue in the center of downtown remains flooded, albeit less so than earlier in the week.
Illinois Route 3 remains passable through Olive Branch, Ill., but flood water has taken up most of the southern Illinois town Thursday.
Reed Station Road Mobile Home Park in Carbondale, Ill., remains flooded Thursday.
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear views flooding of Hickman, Ky., from a Blackhawk helicopter on Thursday. Beshear visited flood-ravaged areas in western Kentucky on Thursday and asked the White House for federal assistance in the recovery. During a stop in Paducah on Thursday morning, Beshear said he asked President Barack Obama for a presidential disaster declaration.
Col. Keith Landry, left, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers listens as Gov. Steve Beshear asks about the flood wall being built to try to keep the flooding Ohio River out of Smithland, Ky., on Thursday.
Workers toss sandbags to stack atop the flood wall they are building to try to keep the flooding Ohio River out of Smithland, Ky., on Thursday.
Rising water from Kentucky Lake covers the roadway and sidewalk at the park at Lighthouse Landing in Grand Rivers, Ky., on Thursday. The release of water at Kentucky Dam has been limited because of high river levels on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers that are causing flooding throughout the region.
The Thebes Public Works Building is submerged by flood waters from the Mississippi River on Thursday in Thebes, Ill. Southern Illinois cities bore up under the prospect of worse flooding along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers Thursday while state officials activated more National Guard troops and ordered 1 million sandbags.

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