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Originally published Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 7:01 AM

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Courts won't step in as corps weighs levee break

With federal courts opting not to step in, the Army Corps of Engineers has begun pumping explosives into a Missouri levee as it weighs whether to blast it open to ease inland floodwaters and spare an Illinois town where most residents were forced to scurry from a river still rising to record heights.

Associated Press

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CAIRO, Ill. —

With federal courts opting not to step in, the Army Corps of Engineers has begun pumping explosives into a Missouri levee as it weighs whether to blast it open to ease inland floodwaters and spare an Illinois town where most residents were forced to scurry from a river still rising to record heights.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito offered no elaboration Sunday in rejecting Missouri's latest - and perhaps last - legal bid to block the corps from intentionally breaching the southeastern Missouri levee to ease the rain-swollen Mississippi and Ohio rivers that merge near Cairo, Ill.

The ruling by Alito, who handles emergency requests from Missouri and various other Midwest states, came the same day all but 20 to 30 families in 2,800-resident Cairo were ordered out of the city and away from the Ohio that had eclipsed its 74-year-old record height and continued its ascent.

As Illinois National Guard troops went door to door with law enforcers to enforce the mayor's "mandatory" evacuation order the previous night, those who were allowed to stay - a courtesy extended only to adults - did so at their own peril, signing waivers acknowledging they understood the risk.

A few hours later, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, the corps officer who ultimately will decide the levee's fate, ordered crews to move barges to the Missouri side of the river and begin loading pipes embedded in the levee with explosives in anticipation of blowing up a two-mile section just downriver from Cairo.

Insisting no decision on the levee's fate had been made, Walsh said it would take 20 hours to get the pipes filled - time he would spend observing the rivers' rise and the rainfall, which continued pounding the region into early Monday.

The Ohio, as of early Monday, had risen to 60.58 feet at Cairo - eclipsing the 1937 record there of 59.5 feet. The river was expected to crest Tuesday at 61.5 feet and stay there for at least into Friday, raising the corps' concerns about the lingering strain water that high could put on levees. Cairo's floodwall can handle 64 feet.

The corps has said sacrificing the levee would provide a relief valve to ease the menacing rivers and ultimately lower them, taking pressure off Cairo's floodwall and other levees father south along the Mississippi.

But the plan could inundate 130,000 acres of now-evacuated farmland in Missouri's agriculture-reliant Mississippi County, causing what Missouri argues would crush that region's economy and environment by rendering that cropland useless under potentially feet of sand and silt.

Given the record water levels, "this is a dramatic, once or twice in a lifetime kind of occurrence" for the region, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said after touring the levee Sunday with Walsh. "We understand the general and his team have difficult decisions to make."

Just 17 miles from Cairo, near tiny Olive Branch, Janice Bigham watched as her husband and volunteers desperately scrambled to heighten the sandbag wall that made their ranch-style home an oasis from the at times swampy, snake-ridden floodwaters that already had swallowed up many nearby homes and outbuildings without such defenses.

"All we can do is hope and pray that they blow that levee," said Bigham, 40. "That's the only thing that might take the pressure off; otherwise, the water will be over the road and wipe out Olive Branch."

Bigham pressed that the gray-and-white brick home needed to be saved, given that her late father helped build it. "That's all I have left of him," she said before turning away briefly, her chin trembling as tears welled.

The flooding posed the latest challenge for Cairo and the rest of Alexander County, with a non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate around 12 percent as of March, 3 percent higher than the state's average. The cash-strapped county in recent years had several sheriff's cars taken back by the bank over unpaid bills.

Cairo has proud history, once serving as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters in the Civil War's infancy before steamboats helped make it a vital transportation nexus. By the 1920s, when 15,200 people called Cairo home, the city was a hub of commerce, thanks to rails and rivers, before its importance waned as the nation turned to interstate highways and air travel.

Matters worsened when a race riot erupted in 1967, fueling the exodus of employers and residents. The city has never recovered.

The riverfront now resembles an Old West stage set, its facades crumbling and windows boarded up. Some buildings are little more than heaps of bricks.

On Sunday, the city looked apocalyptic, its streets deserted of traffic that only included police cars. Prisoners loaded sandbags on an auto-parts business' lot, then loaded them in a fire-brigade fashion onto a dump truck under the watchful eye of guards. Churches that would have been overflowing that time of day were shuttered.

Saturated ground had given way under some streets, in one case leaving a crater about 8 feet deep near another stretch of buckled road.

"Like any situation of this magnitude, it's going to hopefully endear people to each other," Police Chief Gary Hankins said. "Hopefully, this will prove our worth as far as coming together as a community."

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