Shortly after 10 p.m. last night, the Army Corps of Engineers blew a 2-mile stretch of the levee on the Missouri side of the Mississippi river, at Cairo. Folks like Benton farmer Kelly Robertson felt the blast 80 miles away. Water immediately began to flow south onto Missouri farmland, through bins, sheds and farm houses.
The blowing of the levee took place only after much litigation. The breach was proposed in order to save Cairo. Reportedly, 2,700 homes could be saved from floodwaters by flooding 130,000 acres in Missouri. Litigation went all the way to the Supreme Court Monday, when Justice Alito ruled they could blow it.
Personally, I like to have confidence in those people who spend their lives studying flood plains and river management. But then you hear other (informed) people say it won't help. That there's just so much water and so much pressure, and serious questions about whether the blowing of the levee will be enough. Reportedly, the dams at Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake are under enough pressure that there's talk of releasing them – which could flood the very areas they sought to protect Monday night.
There are, of course, so many mixed feelings. You can't just let Cairo get destroyed, but swamping farmland doesn't seem at all right either.
Cairo is a very poor city, with lots of unemployment, lots of abandoned business. Much of the affected area is reportedly home to low-income African-Americans. So you don't want anyone to lose their home - especially not a Katrina-like wiping-out of whole parts of a city.
But I feel for those poor farm families. All Monday afternoon and evening, I thought of what it would be like to be moving out equipment, grain, livestock – not to mention everything in your house. And of course, they are just things. They can be replaced. But on a farm, those things are sometimes more than just property. They're your livelihood. And it'd be hard to leave a home that had been in your family for generations. Not impossible, but hard.
Plus, from what I understand, those farmers in Missouri carry flood insurance, which would kick in if it were a natural disaster. But the man-made blowing of the levee means it's not-so-much natural and may not qualify. So reportedly, it either will not cover losses or will not cover them fully. I qualify all this because I've not heard it directly from insurance experts.
And the flooded land? The water will go away eventually but I suspect the ground won't go back to "normal." I visited the Quincy area a couple winters ago, to do a story on the fallout from the 2008 flood on the Mississippi. I had never realized that the land – like 40 acres' worth – where the break occurred was completely ruined. Rushing water cut a gorge 30-feet deep and 300-feet wide. It left behind feet of sand and silt and trees and more in the immediate farmland, rendering it useless. Further out, it left sand and debris that can be cleaned up, but at terrific cost. So it's not like it'll just dry out and be the same. And obviously, that would be a small percentage of the 130,000 acres (hopefully), but you still hate to see it.
I don't envy the folks who make these decisions. Urban homes for farmland? No guarantees of a true fix? Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't? These are tough calls to make.