CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A federal appeals court cleared the way Saturday for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to blow a hole through a levee along the Mississippi River in Missouri to try to prevent flooding in a small Illinois town.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided not to overturn a judge's decision that allows the Corps of Engineers to use explosives to breech the Birds Point levee downstream from Cairo, a town at the southern tip of Illinois near the Missouri border. The ruling is the second setback in as many days for Missouri, which asked the court to block the plan because it could flood about 130,000 acres of farmland. Hundreds of people have already been evacuated from the area.
The Corps of Engineers started moving barges containing the explosives closer to the levee Saturday afternoon but was still weighing its options and monitoring the rise of the Ohio River in Cairo, which is just north of where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi, spokesman Jim Pogue said. The decision would be based on how high the river is expected to get, from new rain that could fall and water backing up in reservoirs upstream.
The barges were being moved to a spot in Kentucky just across from the levee, which would save time in case the agency decides to go through with the blast, Pogue said.
"It probably shaves about four to six hours off the time table," he said.
The river is expected to crest in Cairo at 60.5 feet — a foot above its record high — by Tuesday morning and stay there through at least early Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. A flood wall protects Cairo and its 2,800 residents up to 64 feet, but the Corps of Engineers fears that water pressure from the lingering river crest could compromise the wall and earthen levees that protect other parts of the city.
"It's all about how much pressure is being put on the levee system," Pogue said.
A spokesman for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said state officials are now focused on protecting the homes, agricultural equipment and other property in the heavily farmed flood plain below the levee. About 230 residents were evacuated from the floodway, while as many as 800 were asked to leave surrounding areas.
"The entire area has been evacuated now," spokesman Scott Holste said, adding that more than 500 Missouri National Guard troops are helping local law enforcement at checkpoints around the area.
Nixon said Saturday that he ordered about 100 members of the Guard to southeastern Missouri to join more than 600 troops already there. Nixon says evacuations now are complete.
Nixon says the Guard has set up command posts and checkpoints in the evacuation area to help secure homes and property.
It's unclear whether Missouri could pursue further legal action. That would be up to Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, Holste said. Koster's office didn't immediately respond to phone calls or e-mails Saturday from The Associated Press.
In Cairo, Mayor Judson Childs said he was relieved by the appellate court's decision.
"I've been saying all along that we can't take land over lives," he said, adding that inmates from the local prison were working Saturday to fill sand bags. "Right now we're waiting and watching, basically."
Cairo residents have been advised to evacuate but aren't yet required to do so, he said. Police Chief Gary Hankins "strongly urged" people to leave but guessed roughly 1,000 people remain in town.
If the Corps of Engineers decides to breach the levee, it would use explosives to weaken a 2-mile-wide section where the force of the water would push through to the farmland that sits behind the levee in Missouri's Mississippi County.
Missouri officials have also argued that the rush of water could lead to environmental catastrophe in the flood plain, sweeping away fertilizer, diesel fuel, propane tanks, pesticides and other toxins.
Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee want the corps to move forward with the plan, but Missouri sought a temporary restraining order to block the detonation.