Mayor orders flood-threatened Ill. city evacuated
Published: Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 9:31 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 9:31 a.m.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Authorities in a southern Illinois city menaced by two dangerously swollen rivers say most of the city's remaining residents have heeded a mandatory evacuation order, prompted by river water seeping up through the ground behind the levee "kind of like Old Faithful."
Passing thunderstorms dumped rain overnight on the already waterlogged region, adding to the worries of emergency officials.
Cairo Mayor Judson Childs issued a mandatory evacuation order for the city of 2,800 residents late Saturday afternoon, hours after meeting with Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, the Army Corps of Engineers officer tasked with deciding whether to blow a hole in the Birds Point levee in Missouri, downstream from Cairo, to relieve pressure on levees along the dangerously high Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He ordered remaining residents to leave by midnight Saturday due to a "sand boil" — or area of river water seepage — that had become dangerously large.
At 4 a.m. CDT, the Ohio River topped a 1937 record of 59.50 feet by reaching 59.59 feet at Cairo, the National Weather Service reported.
Jim Pitchford, a spokesman for Cairo's emergency services, told The Associated Press early Sunday that authorities had taken note of the new river level but were gratified that the boil area appeared to hold "stable" throughout the night. He said the seeping water was undergoing constant monitoring by corps officials.
"I'm happy to report that there's been no change in the past four hours. We continue to monitor the area and we have taken note of the gauge," he said of the record level on the Ohio River at Cairo posted on a National Weather Service website.
Pitchford said corps officials and others had been out checking the pumps during the night and earlier thunderstorms had since ended.
Police in Cairo also told AP early Sunday that they had no indication anyone had defied the mandatory evacuation order, but officers would go door to door in coming hours to make sure everyone was out who wasn't authorized to be there.
Walsh, who toured Cairo's levee area, had recently described the boil that has been growing since it was first spotted Tuesday as the largest he had ever seen, the Southeast Missourian newspaper reported. Sand boils occur when high-pressure water pushes under flood walls and levees and wells up through the soil behind them. They're a potential sign of trouble.
City clerk Lorrie Hesselrode described the boil as "kind of like Old Faithful," the famous geyser in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. "There's so much water pressure it forces the water under ground."
"It's kind of scary. It's pretty big. We've had sand boils before but nothing like this. It is under control but other boils have popped up," she told The Associated Press.
The river is expected to crest in Cairo at 60.5 feet — a foot above the local record high — by Tuesday morning and stay there through at least Thursday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. A flood wall protects Cairo up to 64 feet, but the corps fears that water pressure from the lingering river crest could compromise the wall and earthen levees that protect other parts of the city.
Earlier Saturday, Cairo police Chief Gary Hankins estimated that about 1,000 residents had remained prior to the mandatory evacuation.
The corps inched closer Saturday to blowing a hole in the Birds Point levee after a federal appeals court declined to stop the move. The corps moved a pair of barges loaded with the makings of an explosive sludge into position near the levee, which is on the Mississippi River just downstream from Cairo in Missouri, but said it hadn't decided that it needed to breach the 60-foot-high earthen wall to protect Cairo.
The 230 people who live in the southeast Missouri flood plain behind the Birds Point levee had already been evacuated from their homes, a spokesman for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said. Some of the farmers whose roughly 130,000 acres of land would be inundated moved out what they could Saturday, assuming the corps will have no choice as the Mississippi and Ohio that feeds it rise.
"When the water hits this dirt, it's going to make a hell of a mess," one of the farmers, Ed Marshall, said as he packed up his farm office and hauled away propane tanks and other equipment. He said he was keeping an eye on the weather forecast, which called for several more inches of rain over the next few days. "If that happens, I don't believe they'll be able to hold it."
In Cairo, the mayor said he was relieved by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision early Saturday in St. Louis.
"I've been saying all along that we can't take land over lives," Childs said.
The state of Missouri had asked the court to block the plan to protect the farm land. Scott Holste, a spokesman for Nixon, said state officials there are now focused on protecting the homes, agricultural equipment and other property left behind in the heavily farmed flood plain below the levee. In addition to people evacuated from the floodway, as many as 800 were asked to leave surrounding areas.
"The entire area has been evacuated now," Holste said, adding that more than 500 Missouri National Guard troops are helping local law enforcement at checkpoints around the area.
It's unclear whether Missouri could pursue further legal action. Holste referred questions to Attorney General Chris Koster, whose didn't respond to phone calls or emails Saturday from The Associated Press.
The corps started moving the barges to a spot in Kentucky just across from the levee Saturday afternoon but was still weighing its options and monitoring the rise of the Ohio River in Cairo, which is just north of where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi, spokesman Jim Pogue said. The decision would be based on how high the river is expected to get, from new rain that could fall and water backing up in reservoirs upstream.
One key signal, he said, will be if the Ohio nears or reaches 61 feet at Cairo.