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Levee blast saves town, flood focus now on Memphis

Blowing up a two-mile stretch of levee appears to have saved one town from flooding, but rising waters on the Mississippi were flooding other areas, including parts of suburban Memphis, Tenn.
Image:
These mobile homes in suburban Memphis, Tenn., were swamped Tuesday by floodwaters along the Wolf River, a tributary of the Mississippi.Erik Schelzig / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Blowing up a two-mile stretch of levee appears to have saved one town from flooding, but rising waters along the Mississippi and its tributaries were flooding other areas and forcing new evacuations, including parts of suburban Memphis, Tenn.

Memphis could see a near-record crest of 48 feet on May 10, just inches lower than the record of 48.7 feet in 1937. Water from the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers has already seeped into parts of the suburbs, and some mobile home parks were inundated.

Flooding fears prompted Shelby County, which includes Memphis, to declare an emergency for 920,000 residents. Authorities blocked some suburban streets, and about 220 people were staying in shelters.

The downtown area of Tiptonville, a town of 3,000 located 120 miles northeast of Memphis, was under water Tuesday.

The Mississippi is expected to rise to its highest levels since the 1920s in some parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.

"We're making a lot of unfortunate history here in Mississippi in April and May," said Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. "We had the historic tornadoes, and now this could be a historic event."

Flooding downtown Tiptonville, Tenn., as seen from a Tennessee National Guard helicopter on Tuesday, May 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)Erik Schelzig / AP

Authorities were considering using techniques similar to the Missouri levee explosion to divert an oncoming rush of water.

The Army Corps of Engineers has said about 241 miles of levees along the Mississippi River between Cape Girardeau, Mo., and the Gulf of Mexico need to be made taller or strengthened. George Sills, a former Army Corps engineer and levee expert in Vicksburg, Miss., said the volume of water moving down the river would test the levee system south of Memphis into Louisiana.

"It's been a long time since we've seen a major flood down the Mississippi River," Sills said. "This is the highest river in Vicksburg, Miss., since 1927. There will be water coming by here that most people have never seen in their lifetime."

By Tuesday, sunny skies and dry conditions gave residents and government officials their clearest view of the inundation triggered after the Army Corps blew a massive hold in the Birds Point levee late Monday.

A staccato series of explosions lit up the night with orange flashes and opened a massive hole in the levee, sending a wall of water onto 200 square miles of corn, soybean and wheat fields. The deluge ruined crop prospects for this year and damaged or destroyed about 100 homes.

A group of 25 farmers sued the federal government Tuesday, arguing that their land had been taken without adequate compensation.

"In the process of breaching the levee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also destroyed or is in the process of destroying 90 households and more than 100,000 acres of the country's richest farmland," said J. Michael Ponder, the attorney from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, who filed the suit.

"What these property owners and farmers are seeking is just compensation for the land and livelihood they have lost — possibly forever or for decades."

At a spot along the Birds Point levee, 56-year-old Ray Presson looked through binoculars to see just how high the water stood at his 101-year-old home and the 2,400 acres he farms around it. Presson is staying with a cousin in nearby Charleston, and he's not sure when, or if, he'll get to go home.

"It could be three weeks. It could be two months," he said. "The government's not giving us any kind of timetable."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said farmers who had crop insurance will be eligible for government reimbursements if their land was flooded.

Other forms of help will be available for livestock producers and tree farmers under the same programs designed for natural disasters. People who lost homes may also be eligible for rural housing loans.

At Cairo, Ill., which sits precariously at the intersection of the swollen Mississippi and Ohio rivers, preliminary readings suggested the levee project break was doing its job. Hours after the blast, the water level at Cairo was dropping rapidly.

Before the levee was breached, the river stood at 61.72 feet and rising. By Tuesday morning, it had fallen to 60.4 feet and was expected to decline to 59.4 feet by Saturday, easing pressure on the floodwall protecting the town.

But if Cairo seemed to dodge disaster, ominous flooding forecasts were raising alarm from the Missouri Bootheel to near New Orleans.

Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh has said he might make use of other downstream "floodways" — giant basins surrounded by levees that can be blown open to divert floodwaters.

Officials in Louisiana and Mississippi are warning that the river could bring a surge of water unseen since 1927.

"It's been a long time since we've seen a major flood down the Mississippi River," said George Sills, a former Army Corps engineer and levee expert in Vicksburg, Mississippi "This is the highest river in Vicksburg, Miss., since 1927. There will be water coming by here that most people have never seen in their lifetime."

Back at the Missouri levee, the blast allowed water to pour into the river basin like a bathtub.

"It's a mini-tsunami," Carlin Bennett, the presiding Mississippi County commissioner, said of the wall of water. He estimated property damage at $1 billion.

Two smaller blasts farther south on the levee were scheduled for sometime Tuesday, with the goal of allowing some water to run back into the Mississippi.

Farmers and residents of Wyatt, close to the levee, gathered just after dawn Tuesday to survey the several feet of murky brown waters inside. A small cluster of cattle stood grazing on the slope of the levee, and National Guard soldiers patrolled the area.

Travis Williams, 34, a farmer who owns more than 1,000 acres now under water, said his home is safe because it is on "the good side of the levee."

"It's a life changing event," Williams said. "My heart goes out to all the farmers who lost their land and homes."

Billy and Tammy Suggs, who live in Wyatt, opened up the town's tiny city hall so people would have a place to gather and mourn together as the blast occurred Monday night. They said it was a lot stronger than expected, knocking out windows in several homes.

"We went around putting boards up to keep the rain out," Billy Suggs said.



The explosion came just before 10 p.m. Monday, lasting only a few seconds, with reporters watching from about a half mile off the river.

In largely evacuated Cairo, police Chief Gary Hankins watched the orange flashes and was hopeful.

"We had periods here where there were lulls, but it seems like lately we couldn't catch a break," he said. "Maybe it seems now like we might be at a turning point. This sort of makes it easier to be optimistic."

On the other side of the river, Mississippi County, Mo., commissioner Robert Jackson said farewell to his family's 1,500 acres of farmland. But he also tried to stay positive.

"We can't start drying up until we finish getting wet," he said. "I hope this mission accomplishes what they wanted it to, and the sun will shine again."