Birds Point - New Madrid Floodway complete

Published: May. 2, 2011 at 9:27 PM CDT|Updated: May. 6, 2011 at 3:08 PM CDT
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(Source: Deena Glenn)
(Source: Deena Glenn)
Wardell helicorder 1st blast reading compared with the 2nd
Wardell helicorder 1st blast reading compared with the 2nd
(Source: Army Corps of Engineers)
(Source: Army Corps of Engineers)

After completing the levee blasts at the Birds Point - New Madrid Floodway Thursday, the US Army Corps of Engineers is moving its joint information center to Memphis to continue the floodfight downstream of the Mississippi River.

The third levee blast happened at 2:35 p.m. Thursday, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

"Public safety is number one. I still don't think people don't understand the immensity of this flood. The rain event we've had the past two weeks is 600 percent above normal," said Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh on the Corps Facebook page just before 6 p.m. Thursday.  "I want to commend Col. Reichling and his multiple unit task force. This has been a complex mission. They've done an excellent job."

Major General Michael Walsh says river levels at Cairo, Paducah and Cape Girardeau continue to drop. He says the project is working as designed.
Walsh said crews faced a number of obstacles in carrying out the levee breaches. They faced lightening, wind, and rain. Plus, more recently they ran out of explosives in their attempt to carry out final levee blast. They were finally able to complete the project at 2:35 p.m. on Thursday.
Plans are underway to send crews south to Louisiana. The Corps of Engineers plans to operate for sure one of two floodways in that state. The other may need to be operated as well.
The floodfight continues all up and down the Mississippi River. Hundreds of crews continue to sandbag and do all that's necessary to keep flood waters at bay.
The Mississippi River drains 41 percent of the continental United States, according to the corps.
Colonel Vernie Reichling with the Army Corps of Engineers says a big concern is whether floodwaters will soon impact the city of East Prairie, Mo. He says there is a lot of water building up in the set back levee at New Madrid. A lot of that water is coming from St. John's Bayou which is at capacity, and currently threatening Interstate 55 North of New Madrid.
Meanwhile, in New Madrid the major problems right now are from water seeping under the levee. People on Water Street say they are getting water in their homes. One woman, Helen Beaher, says she has lived in her home since 1955 and has never seen water this high.
The Mississippi River at New Madrid has reached a new record level. More water is expected, as the river is predicted to crest this weekend.

A post on the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway Project Facebook page just after 1 p.m. said "final preparations are being made to open the third crevasse (outflow levee section). We expect the final blast to occur within about an hour."

Another post confirmed the "third and final outflow crevasse was opened at 2:39 p.m."

Because of safety concerns the corps says there will not be an area where people can view the blast but a member of the Corps will be available after to address the media.

The corps had planned a blast Wednesday morning and a rescheduled blast at 8 or 9 p.m. on Wednesday.

"Due to logistical difficulties, the Corps will not breach the lower levee section (outflow crevasse) today [Friday]," the corps said Wednesday night on it's Facebook page.

Some in the Heartland have voiced concern about the blasting on the New Madrid Fault line.

The first blast Monday night had an equivalent magnitude of about 3, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

However, the blasts are not expected to induce earthquakes.

"Similar blasting activity is also conducted routinely in mines, quarries, road building, and other human endeavors and does not induce additional earthquakes," according to a posting on the USGS website. "The added weight of the flood waters are only a tiny fraction of the weight of the earth's crust and are also not expected to induce earthquakes. The probability of a significant New Madrid earthquake is no higher nor lower as a result of the Birds Point operation or the flood waters."


Additional slurry material for blasting the third levee section (outflow crevasse) is expected to arrive later Wednesday, according to a post on the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway Joint Information Center Facebook page.

It should take about three hours to load into pipes and the earliest to complete the breaching of this levee section would be 8 or 9 p.m. Wednesday.

The third levee breach will take place southeast of Big Oak tree State Park further northeast of Tuesday's blast.

More than 130 people, many from Cairo, Ill. waited to return home Wednesday as the Ohio River levels continue to drop after the first to levee breaches.

Since the first two blasts, river levels have dropped from 61.72 feet on May 2 to 59.8 feet as of noon Wednesday.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said Wednesday they are working to support the state in their efforts to help those residents in the Birds Point - New Madrid Floodway affected by the flooding.


At the Corps 6 p.m. press conference in Sikeston on Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh talked about the floodfight.

Walsh says he is proud to see Missouri and Illinois residents helping out during this stressful time, with the rising waters and also dealing with the weather over the last week.

"We've been fighting this flood and I can't tell you how proud I am to see Americans on both sides of the river helping each other," Walsh said.

The second blast took place around 12:38 p.m. Tuesday, according to helicorder readings.

"Our engineers overcame many challenges over the last several days from wind, weather, fatigue, many worked 24-36 straight hours to accomplish the mission," said Army Corps Col. Vernie Reichling.

"The operation was completed as designed," Walsh added.  "A number of gage readings showed significant differences after we opened the floodway. An operation as complex as this one had enormous challenges along with 50 mph winds and weather last night."

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who stood behind the state's failed legal fight to stop the destruction of the levee , said state leaders would do everything "within our power to make sure the levee is rebuilt and those fields, the most fertile fields in the heartland, are put back in production."

By blowing the levee, the corps hoped to reduce the river level at Cairo and ease pressure on the floodwall protecting the town. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Mississippi had receded to 60.2 feet and continued to fall, a day after a record crest.

"Things look slightly better, but we're not out of the woods," Police Chief Gary Hankins said while driving his patrol car past jail inmates assigned to fill sandbags outside an auto-parts store.

But if Cairo and other spots were dodging disaster, ominous flooding forecasts were raising alarm from southeast Missouri to Louisiana and Mississippi.

In Missouri, the town of Caruthersville was bracing for a crest of 49.7 feet later this week. The flood wall protecting the town can hold back up to 50 feet, but a sustained crest will pressure the wall. Workers have been fortifying the concrete and earthen barrier with thousands of sand bags.

Memphis could see a near-record crest of 48 feet on May 10, just inches lower than the record of 48.7 feet in 1937. Water from the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers has already seeped into parts of the suburbs, and some mobile home parks were inundated.

Flooding fears prompted Shelby County authorities to declare an emergency for 920,000 residents. Authorities blocked some suburban streets, and about 220 people were staying in shelters.

Farther south, the lower Mississippi River was expected to crest well above flood stages in a region still dealing with the aftermath of last week's deadly tornadoes.

Forecasters say the river could break records in Mississippi that were set during catastrophic floods in 1927 and 1937. Gov. Haley Barbour started warning people last week to take precautions if they live in flood-prone areas near the river. He compared the swell of water moving downriver to a pig moving through a python.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh - the man ultimately responsible for the decision to go through with breaking the Missouri levee - has indicated that he may not stop. In recent days, Walsh has said he might also make use of other downstream basins surrounded by levees that can intentionally be opened to divert floodwaters.

Unlike the Missouri levee, these floodways can be opened using gates designed for the purpose, not explosives.

Among the structures that could be tapped are the 58-year-old Morganza floodway near Morgan City, La., and the Bonnet Carre floodway about 30 miles north of New Orleans. The Morganza has been pressed into service just once, in 1973. The Bonnet Carre, which was christened in 1932 has been opened nine times since 1937, most recently in 2008.

During a news conference Tuesday night, Walsh characterized the chances of being forced to open the Bonnet Carre flood gates as "high" and the chances at Morganza as "medium." He expects to decide on the Bonnet Carre as early as Thursday, and on Morganza next week.

He said there are no homes in the Bonnet Carre floodway, though there are scattered homes and farmland in the Morganza floodway.

After Memphis, the Mississippi River is expected to crest May 12 at Helena, Ark., and further south in the following days. Forecasters predict record levels at the towns of Vicksburg and Natchez, Miss.

High water has already shut down nine river casinos in northwest Mississippi's Tunica County, where about 600 residents have been evacuated from flood-prone areas on the inside of the levee, said county spokesman Larry Liddell.

"We're concerned, but as long as the levee holds we'll be all right. And we don't have any doubt that the levee is going to hold," Liddell said. "We have the strongest levees in the country."

Retired Major Gen. Tom Sands, a former president of the Mississippi River Commission and former Army Corps engineer, said the corps was pursuing a plan to manage the high water with spillways and other release valves, such as hundreds of relief wells that take water out of the river.

The Mississippi River is carrying about 2.3 million cubic feet of water per second, and the levee system along it was designed to handle 3 million cubic feet of water per second at the Old River Control Structure, a massive floodgate north of Baton Rouge to keep the Mississippi River from diverting course and flowing into the Atchafalaya River.

Walsh also said he flew to Wappapello on Tuesday afternoon, and stated that the dam has a design feature of 10,000 cubic feet-per-second of water coming out of the lake.  As of Tuesday afternoon it had 35,000 cubic feet-per-second.  So, Lake Wappapello is spilling out water three times the dam's designed flow. Thus, the flows are heading down into Arkansas and into the St. Francois-way.

[See the latest river stages.]

The corps is breaching the levee to lower the swollen Mississippi and protect the small Illinois town of Cairo. Monday night's initial blast allowed the river to swamp about 130,000 acres of rich farmland and about 100 homes on the Missouri side.

In a joint briefing between Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon and the Army Corps of Engineers, the Gov. said that "we will repair, rebuild and restore this part of the state." According to the Corps twitter account, they are making preparations for third blast in the outflow area.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers say there was a delay of the second blast because of positioning of the barges after inclement weather Monday night.


The first portion of the levee at Birds Point was breached just after 10 p.m. on Monday.

It was a quick blast of a series of explosions and then a long booming rumble.  The Birds Point blast was felt at the Wardell, Missouri helicorder. Helicorders are similar to seismographs.

The second blast scheduled between 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. has been delayed due to unsafe weather conditions, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Crews are still preparing and will post new information when it is available.  In the meantime, there has been no timetable set for the second blast.

Heartland News received calls from around the Heartland from viewers who felt the blast.  Viewers from Campbell, Blodgett, Miner, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri and in Karnak and Wolf Lake, Illinois are just a few of the hundreds who reported feeling shaking from the blast.

Hickman, Kentucky police confirm some damage may be related to the blast at Birds Point levee.  A home there had some ground give way after the blast and the people are evacuating the home. Police say there have been three other earlier reports of the ground giving way near homes because of all the water. This one, near a church, is the only one thought to be related to the blast.  The Army Corps of Engineers was now en route to check the damage.

The blowing of the levee at Birds Point may be already having an affect on the Ohio River at Cairo. At 10 p.m. (three minutes before the first explosion), the Ohio River at Cairo was at 61.72 feet. At 11 p.m., the river was at 61.29 feet. That's a drop of 5.16 inches.  At midnight, it was down to 61.13 feet.

At 1 a.m., the Ohio River at Cairo was 60.98 feet.  That's a drop of 8.9 inches since Birds Point levee breech three hours ago.

At 2 a.m. the river was at 60.92 feet.  At 3 a.m. the river was 60.81 feet.  At 4 a.m. the river was at 60.73 feet.  At 5 a.m. the river was at 60.67 feet.  At 6 a.m. the rive was 60.62 feet.

[See the latest river stages.]

After the first blast, the corps' operations moved to New Madrid to be closer to the second blast in the southern part of the levee.

The Army Corps of Engineers breached the first section of the levee just after 10 p.m.  The corps expects to see water flowing into the floodplain area around midnight.

"You seen the line of fire first," said Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore.  "Of course, you know, the charges so deep down in the levee.  I figured it would be a rumble like that cause it was kinda buried down.  It was kinda like a chain reaction.  You hear the rumbler go all the way from one end to the other."

The corps will give a five minute horn blast warning and then a one minute warning before the blast.

The corps was expected to break another section of the levee in the southern part from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. Tuesday.  This would be a smaller, outflow breach. However, as of 5:30 a.m. the second blast had not happened.

The final execution of the project will be in the upper portion between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Maj. General Michael Walsh, President of the Mississippi River Commission, announced he decided to operate the floodway project at Birds Point - New Madrid Floodway at 5 p.m.

Maj. General Walsh called it a "heart-wrenching" situation.

Breaking the levee means flooding about 133,000 acres of farmland and 100 homes in Mississippi and New Madrid counties.

"Made your heart skip a beat," Sheriff Moore said. "But, if it works and it's for the good then my people and the citizens will make due.  We'll, come ahead.  They're good people and we'll get through this."

"This is the right time to operate it," Walsh said.

Maj. General Walsh called this flooding unprecedented and historic.

He said boat operators, labors, scientists, engineers, and truck drivers all told him the same thing.

"I never thought I would see the day that the river would reach these levels."

He said public safety was his number one issue in initiating the plan to blow parts of the levee.

"Safety is our number one priority," Walsh said. "And that was the main reason we stood down operations last night during lightning storms."

[Read this statement from Walsh and the Mississippi River Commission.]

This breach will create a lake in the floodway in the next 24 to 36 hours.

Around 150 members of the Army Corp of Engineers are working with the Coast Guard.

No civilians will be allowed in the area of the blast.

Some concerns have been made about the main line levee protecting towns.  The corps has said they expect that levee to hold.

The Ohio River was at 61.44 at Cairo as of 5 p.m. Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Gov. Jay Nixon released the following statement regarding the decision by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to intentionally breach the Birds Point-New Madrid Levee:

"One week ago, I activated the Missouri National Guard to protect lives and property in southern and southeast Missouri because of forecasts of historic flooding in that region. In recent days, rainfall has exceeded those initial forecasts, and Missourians are coping with record river levels along parts of the Mississippi. Today, more than 760 Citizen-Soldiers of the Missouri National Guard are on the ground in southeast Missouri. In cooperation with state, county and local law enforcement, they have evacuated the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway and continue to provide protection for the property families have left behind. I appreciate the tireless and professional efforts of all men and women of the Missouri National Guard, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and local agencies who are working long hours to complete their missions.

"Earlier this evening, Major Gen. Michael Walsh of the Corps of Engineers informed me of his decision to proceed with plans to blow a hole in the levee at Birds Point as soon as possible. This explosion will send a tremendous amount of water through approximately 130,000 acres of farmland in southeast Missouri. The General's hope is that this action will relieve pressure on other parts of the levee system and save lives.

"As we have throughout this historic flooding, the State of Missouri will continue to provide resources and personnel to protect the people of the Bootheel. We have boots on the ground. We are prepared. And southeast Missouri will move forward again.

"I urge Missourians to continue to cooperate fully with state, county and local law enforcement, as they have at every stage of this process. Together, we will ensure that Missouri families stay safe in the coming days. And together, we will recover and rebuild."

Gov. Nixon has toured the flooded region three times, including a personal visit into the floodway Sunday evening. The Governor plans to return to the region (Tuesday) to survey the situation.

Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson released the following statement as well.

"The New Madrid floodway is not a failsafe for the rest of the Mississippi River Basin.  The likelihood of dramatic flooding at other points along the river has not been changed by the decision and working in the New Madrid floodway will suffer.  We have a long, long road ahead of us.  The certain damage to homes, buildings and productive farmland will take years to undo.  I have high expectations that the Corps go above and beyond to aid the recovery effort for the people and communities affected by this disaster," Emerson said.


Missourians who need disaster information, shelter information or referrals are urged to call 211. The 211 service number is now available for most areas in Missouri. In areas where the 211 number is not operational, citizens can call 800-427-4626.

Copyright 2011 KFVS. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this story.