The Army Corps of Engineers is continuing to weigh a decision on whether to go ahead with plans to detonate pipe in a levee in the Missouri Bootheel and flood nearly 140,000 acres of farmland.
That comes as the Mississippi River continues to rise from rain dumped by yet another storm system that has been sweeping across the South. Latest reports say 173 persons -- most of them in Alabama and Mississippi -- have been killed in tornadoes spawned by the huge line of storms that began in Texas and were expected to hit North Carolina this morning.
The decision about the levee at Birds Point in Southeast Missouri is not without controversy. Missouri farm leaders believe the flooding resulting from opening the levee could permanently damage the farm land. That message was echoed in a letter sent by a trio of Missouri legislators to President Obama on Wednesday.
For more, see Missouri legislators write Obama on levee plan.
A late Wednesday morning report claimed the Army Corps of Engineers would wait at least until the weekend to make a decision on blowing a two-mile section of levee near Bird’s Point. If the levee is blown, it would relieve flooding fears in Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. However, it would also mean evacuations and allowing some 140,000 acres of prime Missouri crop acreage to go underwater.
Reached at noon on Wednesday, Jim Pogue, the Corps’ Public Affairs Specialist for the Memphis District, said the wait-until-the-weekend claim “is not really correct. Let me tell you where we are.
“The equipment barges are headed north.
“The next decision point will take place this afternoon. That decision point is: do we continue to wait and watch or do we go ahead and prepare the levee for possible detonation? It will be this afternoon before any more decisions are made.
“Right now, we’re moving forward prudently and cautiously and making sure we’re in the right place on this fluid timeline. (That way) if we have to take the next steps, we’re ready to do it.”
When will the barges (which contain equipment and explosives that will be needed if the levee is blown) reach the target area?
“They’ll be pushing up to this general area. The intention is to pre-position in the area and wait – that should be sometime tonight.”
In an early afternoon interview, Blake Hurst, Missouri Farm Bureau president, said worried Bootheel farmers began calling his office on Monday.
“We’re opposed to blowing the levee,” said Hurst. “We’re concerned about the damage to the farm ground and the danger from all the stuff that will wash down the river.
“Running that much water through that many acres, we’re worried about the damage it would do permanently to the farm ground. That holds not only for this year’s crop, of course, but (into the future). It would leave behind sand deposits and trash. Diesel tanks, propane tanks and anhydrous tanks would wash away.
“It’s already a huge natural disaster. I hope we don’t make it worse."
Kevin Mainord, a producer and mayor of a town located on the edge of the floodway, said farmers started moving equipment out of the floodway Monday. “Probably 80 percent of the farming equipment is out, and all that is left are a few homeowners who need to move their possessions. Some homeowners are moving their possessions out but will stay at their residences until it’s evident that the levee will be either overtopped or degraded by the Corps.”
Mainord says the region contains a diversified crop mix of corn, grain sorghum, rice and soybeans. He farms 5,200 acres within the spillway on both the river side of the levee and in the spillway.
Mainord says that if the floodway is opened, as much as a third of the farmland in the area would not be farmed again. “A lot of the drainage would be filled with sand and sediment. It would take years to recover. It’s ridiculous during this time and age that we would be sacrificed to save someone else.
“Even though we know the Corps has the authority and has had an operational plan in place since 1937, it’s our hope as farmers, landowners, residents of the county and of the spillway, that we do not want them to artificially degrade the levee, or let it naturally overtop is there if a way to fight it.”
Mainord is also the mayor of the town of East Prairie, Mo. The town is just outside the spillway and is protected by a levee, but Mainord is concerned about having water right at the town’s doorstep. “Once they release the water, we would be at the mercy of whatever comes through the river.”
Hurst, too, worries about unforeseen consequences if the levee is opened. "Clearly we’d like (the Corps) to flood-fight as long as they possibly can before making a decision" regarding the levee.
Has Farm Bureau crunched the numbers to see what revenue could be lost on the 140,000 acres?
“Just consider corn at the current price,” said Hurst. “You’re looking at a loss of around $150 million in a year just in crop revenues.
“The Corps has made it clear they don’t want to do this. I take them at their word. I’m sure it would be an absolute, last alternative. I just hope they do everything else possible first.”
If the levee is blown will there be compensation for the farmers?
“We’ve been asking that question," said Hurst. "It’s Farm Bureau’s position that they should be compensated for both crop losses and damage to structures. (The resulting flood) would scour the ground and deposit huge amounts of sand. Farm structures, grain bins would all go. So, we hope there would be compensation.
“There has been concerns that crop insurance won’t cover it because it would be a ‘man-made occurrence.’ … However, they should all be covered. The flood isn’t man-made – it’s a natural disaster. Crop insurance should kick in.”
Affected farmers are facing a horrible situation, said Hurst. “It’s just awful. Yesterday, a Corps spokesman said ‘we’re seeing history being made.’ That’s true and isn’t something we’d wish on anyone – but he’s right, this is historic.”
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, said the plan to take down the levee “could cause significant damage, for families and the towns that would be washed away, but for future generations.
“Blowing up the levee system that was designed and built over decades is a very dramatic and dangerous action, with the potential to literally change the way the Mississippi River floods and flows. We’re going to make sure that we fight for what has been a very useful farmland, a very safe place with levees that have worked for decades.”