CAPE GIRARDEAU — As the state of Missouri lost a legal battle to avoid an intentional levee break along the Mississippi River, residents in the flood zone below the earthen barrier cleared out Friday and hoped the cresting waterway would fall and spare their homes.
The Army Corps of Engineers is considering a plan to use explosives to blow a 2-mile-wide hole through the levee in southeast Missouri's Mississippi County, arguably to ease waters rising around the upstream town of Cairo, Ill., near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. A federal judge on Friday gave the corps the go-ahead to break the Birds Point levee, deeming it appropriate to ensure navigation and flood-control along the still-rising Mississippi.
While Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee all want the corps to move forward with the plan, Missouri had sought a temporary restraining order to block the detonation. Attorney General Chris Koster immediately appealed Stephen Limbaugh Jr.'s ruling to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, but it wasn't immediately clear when it would rule.
Even as Missouri appealed, residents in the flood plain appeared resigned to leaving. They had little choice Friday afternoon when authorities announced that power to the area would be cut off and National Guard troops would canvas the area to clear out stragglers.
"They were told this probably ain't their first rodeo. You know what's happening," said Mississippi County sheriff's deputy Janice McCameron.
Some of the residents have large farming operations, creating logistical headaches in moving large numbers of livestock, farm equipment and other possessions.
McCameron said her boss, Sheriff Keith Moore, was personally helping residents load up refrigerators, couches and other belongings.
"I don't think he's slept since the water's been going up," she said. "He's out there with his sleeves rolled up, helping any way he can."
It was unclear Friday whether the corps would follow through on breaking the levee. Spokesman Jim Pogue said the agency needed until the weekend to assess whether a sustained crest of the Ohio River at Cairo would demand the extraordinary step.
The river's crest at the Cairo flood wall could reach 60.5 feet — a foot above its record high — as early as Sunday and stay at that level before slowly retreating by Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service office in Paducah, Ky. Cairo's wall protects the town up to 64 feet, but there is concern the lingering crest could put extra pressure on it and earthen levees protecting other parts of the city.
Pogue said the agency remained "in a wait-and-see stage," with twin barges loaded with explosives still docked six hours downriver from the Bird's Point levee.
"We're hoping we can get a handle on this and sincerely hope we won't have to operate the floodway," he said. "Our intent is to make sure that if we have to move on to the next step (and breach the levee), everyone would have at least 24 hours' notice."
Earlier in the day, U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh disappointed Missouri officials by refusing to intervene.
"This court finds that the corps is committed to implementing the (floodway) plan 'only as absolutely essential to provide the authorized protection to all citizens,'" Limbaugh said in his ruling. "Furthermore, this court finds that no aspect of the corps' response to these historic floods suggests arbitrary or capricious decision-making is occurring."
Missouri is fighting the plan out of fears that a levee break would unleash a torrent of water that would carve a channel through prime farmland, flood about 90 homes and displace residents. The rush of water also stood to cause an environmental catastrophe, the state argued, sweeping away everything from fertilizer to diesel fuel, propane tanks, pesticides and other toxins.
Attorneys for the corps and the state of Illinois countered that the farmers already have land that's flooded and have been given ample notice to clear their properties of anything toxic. Cairo's mayor said the well-being of his 2,800 residents outweighs farmland that would be swallowed up by the rush.
As the legal fight pressed on, the corps gave a handful of reporters a first-hand look at the upper section of the levee Friday afternoon. The gravel-topped levee, next to a closed river bridge linking Missouri to Cairo, Ill., snaked its way along the river's western bank. Two manholes were carved out by corps crews using backhoes and shovels, exposing embedded pipes into which a liquid mix of explosives would be injected to burst the levee.
The river lapped at one side of the levee, edging its way to within two or three feet of the top.
AP reporter Jim Salter in St. Louis contributed to this report.