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Tiny downstate Cairo pitted against state of Missouri in flood battle

Tiny Downstate Cairo, already battling the still-rising Ohio and Mississippi rivers, has been drawn into a controversial flood-relief plan that could put thousands of acres of farmland in neighboring Missouri under water.

The plan calls for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to burst a Mississippi River levee to provide relief to Cairo, population 2,800, as well as relief for a series of pumping stations, flood walls and levees.

But the relief action will trigger flooding in southeastern Missouri, as opening the levee will allow water to flow over about 130,000 acres of Missouri land, mostly farms.

The state of Missouri had sued the Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with flood control along the lower Mississippi River. But on Friday, a federal court judge backed the Army Corps plan.

And on Saturday, a federal appeals court rejected Missouri’s appeal, upholding the ruling.

“If we open the levee, it would allow us to release the water, and that would have the effect of lessening the pressure on the flood protection system in that part of the country,” said Jim Pogue, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We would expect that would drop the water by three to four — up to as much as seven feet. It could drop the pressure on the system by as much as a quarter,” Pogue added,.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) toured the area on Friday, when the flood waters already had reached the front doors of Cairo residents’ homes, a spokeswoman for Durbin said.

On Saturday morning, the river was up to 59.2 feet and forecast to hit 60.5 feet by Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

Late Saturday afternoon, Cairo Mayor Judson Childs ordered a mandatory evacuation by midnight because a “sand boil,” an area where river water was seeping up through the ground behind the levee, had become dangerously large.

Sand boils occur when high-pressure water pushes under flood walls and levees and wells up through the soil behind them.

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.”

Contributing: AP, CNN, Reuters

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