CommunityThe Bullpen

Army Corps of Engineers’ Purposeful Levee Breach Saving Cairo, Illinois

I thought the really false note in Obama’s remarks on the killing of bin Laden was the part at the end where he tried to connect the incident to the spirit of possibility in America. As I said yesterday, I hope we can set our sights higher in the future for doing anything the country sets its mind to do than finding and killing an enemy. It doesn’t make the killing any less of an intelligence and paramilitary triumph to say that perhaps we should have loftier goals.

However, I did get a sense yesterday, in talking with people, that there was a certain symbolism, that after 10 long years, America finally accomplished a goal. For a decade now there’s been this sinking feeling that this was no longer possible, that our institutions have utterly failed, that it’s too unseemly to even dream anymore for want of being disappointed. I’d like to think that we could expect a bit more from our government than the orderly carrying out of lethal military strikes, but I think part of the celebration of the past 24 hours sprung from the fact that the government said they were going to do something, and eventually, they did it.

So in the spirit of highlighting other actual accomplishments, let me direct you to Cairo, Illinois, a city at risk of total flooding as the banks of the Mississippi set to overflow. The Army Corps of Engineers faced a daunting choice: blow up a piece of the levee downstream, flooding some farmland in Missouri but saving the largely African-American, low-income city of Cairo, or do nothing and let Cairo flood. They opted for the former.

Late on Monday night, the US army corps of engineers began detonating charges embedded in the levee at Birds Point, Missouri, in order to create a 2,000-ft breach. The blasts were expected to lower the waters of the Mississippi by up to 7ft, thus sparing the city of Cairo, Illinois. But the breach in the levee was also expected to drown a vast expanse of rich farmland under water, sand and silt. Ninety homes were also at risk.

The decision – which has been fiercely contested in the courts – set a fading town of 2,800 mainly African American residents against relatively well-off farmers. “Making this decision is not easy or hard,” major general Michael Walsh, commander of the army corps, told reporters. “It’s simply grave – because the decision leads to loss of property and livelihood, either in a floodway or in an area that was not designed to flood.”

Nobody thinks it was an easy choice. But in our imagined world where the government gets nothing right, somehow this decision would have flooded both the farmland AND Cairo. However, that’s not what happened. The breach in the levee accomplished its purpose:

East Prairie, MO: Last-ditch efforts to prevent a small Illinois town from flooding appeared to be working Tuesday morning, hours after the Army Corps of Engineers used explosives to tear open a protective levee.

The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, fed by punishing rains, were increasingly posing threats to nearby communities. In Cairo, Ill., the Ohio was at 61.72 feet before the levee was breached late Monday night. By 6 a.m. Tuesday, it had fallen to 60.5 feet.

For now, at least, Cairo appears to be safe. But saving one area meant that another had to take on more water. The explosives did their work, allowing an estimated 550,000 cubic feet of water a second across the 130,000 acres of farmland near this southeast Missouri town known as the spillway.

Cairo isn’t completely safe yet. The river could continue to rise in the coming days. And there’s a second levee in Missouri that will have to hold, or a more populous area could get a lot of the water exposed by the intentional breach. For the moment, though, the system is working, and public workers making tough choices are accomplishing what they set out to do, and saving an historic town from total destruction. The Speaker of the Missouri House (R) may have sniffed that he’s been to Cairo and they should have borne the brunt of the flood, not Missouri, but for the most part, basic decency and humanity has carried the day.

So if you are given to celebrate the renewed sense of accomplishment from the US government, there’s an option here that celebrates life rather than death.

Previous post

Tracking Osama bin Laden's Courier... Through Hassan Ghul

Next post

ISI Raided Abbottabad Compound in 2003, Looking for Abu Furaj al-Libi

David Dayen

David Dayen