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Barges with explosives move to Birds Point, levee blast still undecided

Saturday, April 30, 2011 ~ Updated 7:15 PM

SIKESTON -- Although barges carrying explosives that would blow the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway were moved to the detonation area, no final decision has been made to blast the levee.

"We still have a lot of decisions to make," said Major General Michael J. Walsh, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division, commander of the Task Force Hope and president-designee for the Mississippi River Commission, at a Saturday news conference.

There is no timeline either, and Walsh said decisions are based on the conditions. "This is an hourly discussion -- no decision has been made."

Saturday morning Walsh made the order for the explosives that were being stored in Hickman, Ky. to make the trip to Birds Point. They were expected to arrive later in the evening.

There are still three steps before the blast occurs. Once the barges arrive, they will be pre-positioned. Then, the pipes in the three detonation points will be charged. Finally, there will be an order to activate the floodway. Walsh noted that even if the pipes are charged, there still may not be a decision to trigger the blast.

While officials have indicated they will work to give 24 hours notice prior to the blast, whether that is possible is variable, especially with the weekend rainfall forecast.

Also Saturday morning, Walsh said he left his headquarters in Vicksburg, Miss. and met with other members of the Mississippi River Commission, who flew over the system.

"As you guys know, it is full," he said. "There is water in places where we have never seen it before."

Earlier Saturday afternoon, the gauge at Cairo, Ill. read 59.19 feet. Walsh noted that the highest that gauge has read in history is 59.5 -- a record the river is likely near surpassing. Saturday morning, the mayor of Cairo ordered a mandatory evacuation by midnight.

Right now, the forecast expects the gauge in Cairo will hit 60.5 feet on Sunday or Monday.

"So we're keeping a close eye on that and the system," said Walsh.

He also pointed out that several people are involved in the process. There are hundreds of engineers, scientists and officials with the National Weather Service working around the clock to give the latest and best information to help aid in the decision-making process.

"Cooperation and collaboration is not an option," said Walsh. He is in daily contact with the governors in Missouri and Illinois.

While the operations order states that the plan may be activated when the gauge in Cairo is at 61 feet and rising, that's not the only factor to take into consideration, said Walsh.

"This is a complex system," he said. In several levees in the area, there is seepage as well as the development of sand berms, water berms and sand boils, all which are being stabilized and monitored. For instance, an almost 15-foot wall has been built to address a boil in Cairo -- which, along with other boils in the city is causing real concern.

Major Gen. John W. Peabody, commander and division engineer of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, spoke about efforts being made to hold as much water as possible in other tributaries, including the dams in Barkely and Kentucky Lake.

"We are holding back as much as we can as well as managing for future storage," he said.

Two days ago, Peabody said he made an unprecedented decision to have all basins in the Ohio hold back at all reservoirs, so long as it doesn't lead to a risk of flooding their local area.

Right now, the two Kentucky dams have about 370 feet of water each in them. They can't exceed 375, so weather conditions over the weekend will possibly lead to having to release more water.

Walsh did point out, however, that these efforts have likely kept the river stages about 1.5 feet lower in Cairo.

He also noted here are three other floodways in the Memphis District Corps of Engineers, all near Louisiana. Walsh noted that he has talked to officials there, and indicated they will likely need to be opened as well as the high water levels continue down the Mississippi.

"This is an event that may use all of the resources we have," he said.

Also speaking was R.D. James, a member of the Mississippi River Commission who is also a farmer and manager of cotton gins and grain elevators in New Madrid.

"I've seen this type of flood fight before, but never to this extent," he said.

He noted that the Birds Point is merely the first point of attack on the system.

In his years of work with the Commission, which he was appointed to in 1981, James assured that those involved are "using every asset they have and working to try and prevent using the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway."

James also said he's heard several concerns from those in both Mississippi and New Madrid counties that the setback levees designed to protect them if the spillway is used will not hold.

"We feel they will hold under the circumstances," he said. Anyone who is concerned should leave the area, he said, and contact their local Sheriff's Department for assistance.

In addition to members of the press, law enforcement officials and local dignitaries, several of those who would be affected if the spillway is activated were in attendance.

Among them was Bill Feezor, who farms in the spillway. He asked how long it would likely take for the water levels to return to normal in the area, and Walsh said that's difficult to pinpoint as it depends on a number of variables, including upcoming rainfall.

"What we anticipate is that it is going to rain like hell and then quit," said Feezor. He said that while the activation of the spillway would be costly for him and others "we thank you for your efforts."

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson agreed. "We're real proud of the work you are doing -- we know it's very tense and stressful," she said. Over the past week, Emerson has driven the entire levee, and said she's spent more time in Mississippi than she has over the entire past year.

Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore said that it appears all of the 250 or so residents in the spillway have evacuated, although he will double check if a decision is made to blow the levee.

Today, animals were moved, primarily to the Humane Society in Sikeston. One farmer in the area had about 3,000 head of pigs, and those have also been moved out of the area.

While there are two shelters set up in Mississippi County, Moore said he believes all the evacuees are staying with family.

"It's just great that everything has gone as smoothly as it has," he said.