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Levee blast eases threat to town

Mississippi River is expected to rise to its highest levels since the 1920s in some parts of three states.

A farm is surrounded by floodwater Tuesday in Mississippi County, Mo. The Army Corps of Engineers’ blew a two-mile hole into the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri, after nightfall Monday, flooding 130,000 acres of farmland.

AP photo

WYATT, Mo. — The dramatic, late-night demolition of a levee sent water pouring onto thousands of acres of Missouri farmland Tuesday, easing the Mississippi River floodwaters threatening the tiny Illinois town of Cairo.

But the demolition project did nothing to ease the risk of more trouble downstream, where the mighty river is expected to rise to its highest levels since the 1920s in some parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. Authorities were considering using techniques similar to the Missouri project to divert on oncoming rush of water.

By Tuesday, sunny skies and dry conditions gave residents and government officials their clearest view of the inundation triggered after the Army Corps of Engineers 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.

Travis Williams, 34, a farmer who owns more than 1,000 acres now under water, said his home is safe because it’s 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."

At Cairo, 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.

There were also fresh concerns in western Tennessee, where tributaries have been backed up due to heavy rains and the bulging Mississippi River. In suburban Memphis, some streets were blocked, and some 175 people filled a church gymnasium to await potential record flooding.

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