Image: Ohio River at Cairo, Ill.
Stephen Lance Dennee  /  AP
The Ohio River is seen along the flood wall in downtown Cairo, Ill., on Saturday. Cairo Mayor Judson Childs has issued a mandatory evacuation for residents.
updated 5/1/2011 2:35:54 PM ET 2011-05-01T18:35:54

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Sunday to block federal officials from destroying a Mississippi River levee as they try to prevent flooding in a small Illinois city.

The Army Corps of Engineers is considering blowing a two-mile hole into the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri, which would flood 130,000 acres of farmland in Missouri's Mississippi County but protect nearby Cairo, a small southern Illinois city of 2,800 residents.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Koster's bid Saturday to stop the corps' plan. Although corps officials are monitoring water levels and haven't decided whether to go through with the blast, Koster decided to appeal.

"In light of the devastation faced by the citizens of Mississippi County — devastation that will persist in the area for years to come — it is the responsibility of this office to pursue every possible avenue of legal review," Koster said in a statement.

Cairo, menaced by the dangerously swollen Mississippi and Ohio rivers, was evacuated late Saturday. Passing thunderstorms dumped rain overnight on the already waterlogged region, and water levels hit a record along the Ohio River early Sunday, adding to the worries of emergency officials.

Police said there was no indication that anyone had defied the evacuation order, but officers were going door to door to make sure.

Image: Major Gen. Michael Walsh, Mayor Judson Childs
Stephen Lance Dennee  /  AP
Army Major Gen. Michael Walsh, left, talks with Cairo, Ill.,. Mayor Judson Childs, center, on Saturday. Walsh said that the levee system has not been under the pressure that is currently on the system since being built in 1928.

Cairo Mayor Judson Childs ordered the mandatory evacuation because of a "sand boil," an area of river water seepage, that had become dangerously large. He made the decision after meeting with Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, the Army Corps of Engineers officer tasked with deciding whether to breech the levee to relieve pressure on levees along the two rivers.

Sand boils occur when high-pressure water pushes under flood walls and levees and wells up through the soil behind them. They're a potential sign of trouble.

City clerk Lorrie Hesselrode described the boil as "kind of like Old Faithful," the famous geyser in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. "There's so much water pressure it forces the water under ground."

"It's kind of scary. It's pretty big. We've had sand boils before but nothing like this. It is under control but other boils have popped up," she said.

Early Sunday, the Ohio River topped a 1937 record of 59.50 feet by reaching 59.59 feet in Cairo, the National Weather Service reported.

The river is expected to crest in Cairo at 60.5 feet by Tuesday and stay there through at least Thursday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. A flood wall protects Cairo up to 64 feet, but the corps fears that water pressure could compromise the wall and earthen levees that protect other parts of the city.

The corps moved a pair of barges loaded with the makings of an explosive sludge into position near the levee Saturday, though the agency hasn't decided that it needs to breach the 60-foot-high earthen wall.

The 230 people who live in the southeast Missouri flood plain behind the levee had already been evacuated from their homes, and as many as 800 were asked to leave surrounding areas, said Scott Holste, spokesman for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said.

"The entire area has been evacuated now," Holste said, adding that more than 600 Missouri National Guard troops are helping local law enforcement at checkpoints around the area.

Some of the farmers whose land would be inundated moved out what they could Saturday.

"When the water hits this dirt, it's going to make a hell of a mess," farmer Ed Marshall said as he packed up his farm office and hauled away propane tanks and other equipment.

He said he was keeping an eye on the weather forecast, which called for several more inches of rain over the next few days.

"If that happens, I don't believe they'll be able to hold it," he said.

In Cairo, which is just north of where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi, the mayor said he was relieved that the courts have sided with the corps.

"I've been saying all along that we can't take land over lives," Childs said.


Associated Press writers David Mercer in Champaign, Ill.; Bill Draper in Kansas City, Mo.; and Jim Salter in St. Louis contributed to this report.

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