Cairo Association of Teachers - Newsletter

CAT Tracks for January 24, 2005

The article below appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sunday. Scary stuff...

Drama along the rivers

By Phillip O'Connor
Of the Post-Dispatch

CAIRO, Ill. - When torrential rain began to fall the Friday night of New Year's Eve across large swaths of the central United States, National Weather Service forecasters predicted little letup for several days.

At home outside Vicksburg, Miss., Larry Banks took casual notice of the reports while watching the Weather Channel that weekend. As chief of the watershed division for the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, Banks sits near the end of a chain of command whose responsibility it is to keep the raging forces of some of the nation's biggest inland rivers under control.

Banks already knew that the ground throughout much of the Midwest was still saturated from heavy precipitation that fell before Christmas, but the forecasts caused him no particular alarm.

Within days, his thinking would change dramatically.

While much of the nation's weather-watching in recent weeks focused on mudslides in California, blizzards in the Sierra Nevadas and heavy snow in the Northeast, the Midwest quietly confronted its own climatic drama.

The near-record amounts of rain that fell across more than a half-dozen states soon found its way not only into the Mississippi River system but also the Ohio. There, it sent unusually large winter crests down the two mighty waterways toward Cairo, Ill., and its 3,500 residents.

By last week, with water dangerously high and more rain in the forecast, the situation had reached a critical point. Would it be necessary for only the second time in nearly 70 years to blow up a nearby levee that would save Cairo, but send the floodwater raging across valuable Missouri farmland?

This is a story of how those charged with keeping the nation's great rivers within their banks used the science of flood control and the art of weather forecasting to try to prevent a disaster. It is also the story of how the whims of Mother Nature determined whether they succeeded or failed.

Doom and gloom

Not long after Banks arrived at his office on Monday, Jan. 3, the "doom and gloom platoon" - an engineer, a hydrologic technician and a forecaster - appeared in his doorway.

"When they walk in, it's usually bad news," he said. They told him that the National Weather Service was calling for several additional inches of rain in the already saturated Ohio and Mississippi river basins.

Even then, Banks felt no real sense of panic - at least not until the rainfall amounts ended up being twice what forecasters had predicted.

In St. Louis, corps employee David Busse had noticed for several days on his drives to and from work that the fields and roadside gullies that lined Interstate 255 were full of water, the ground saturated.

On Tuesday, Jan. 4, the St. Louis District office activated its emergency operations center in the Robert A. Young Federal Building in downtown St. Louis. Workers constantly checked radar images and forecasts and reviewed readings from more than 150 satellite-linked river gauges on the Mississippi that measure rainfall and water levels.

As the Missouri, Illinois, Kaskaskia, Meramec and upper Mississippi rivers steadily rose, corps officials in St. Louis began to use dams and reservoirs in a juggling act of holds and releases.

By holding water behind upstream dams on the Osage River at the Harry S Truman Reservoir and on the Salt River at Mark Twain Lake, they cut 6 feet off the crest headed toward St. Louis.

Corps officials took similar actions with the Kaskaskia River in Illinois using the dams at Shelbyville and Carlyle reservoirs. Meanwhile, uncontrolled water continued to pour into the Mississippi from the Illinois River.

The next day in Vicksburg, the platoon again appeared at Banks' office door. Another 4 inches of rain was predicted for the Ohio Valley. This time Banks' anxiety was more acute. Now he knew that floods were imminent on some portions of both rivers.

By that Friday, the crest from the first rains reached St. Louis. Normally in early January the river runs through St. Louis at about 5 1/2 feet. That day it passed through the city at 28.7 feet, the second of three consecutive days the river recorded a record high for that date. Still, the river remained below its flood stage of 30 feet, just barely licking the cobblestones that angle into the river below the Arch. But a larger menace was creeping down the Ohio.

Difficult decisions

Downstream, Cairo sits uneasily on a narrow spit of bottomland that juts out like a peninsula into the massive channel forged by the merger of the Ohio and upper Mississippi rivers. Once a booming commercial center, the city fell into decline in recent decades. Today many downtown storefronts and buildings are empty.

As Banks studied the charts and graphs that measured the river's recent behavior, he began to get anxious. He noticed that as the crest moved downriver, the water levels at Cairo were even a little higher than those seen in January 1937. That year, floodwater that measured 59.5 feet came perilously close to devastating Cairo.

Backwaters eventually encircled the city, turning the town into a virtual island. The mayor ordered women and children out. The city was protected from total destruction by two things: a series of levees and floodwalls that had been built for several miles up both rivers as a result of the Flood Control Act of 1928 and a decision to breach the nearby Bird's Point Levee and open up the New Madrid floodway.

The floodway contains 132,000 acres that extend 33 miles, from just below Cairo to New Madrid, Mo., through what is now mostly farmland.

Banks knew that with the added protection of a beefed-up levee system, Cairo faced no such immediate danger. The forecast at that point was for a 52-foot crest to reach Cairo by Jan. 11.

But Banks also knew that another rainfall of 4 to 8 inches might threaten the levees at Cairo and further downstream on the Mississippi. Should those levees give way, a 30- to 40-mile-wide torrent of water, tens of feet deep, would flow for 200 miles south through southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas, taking out towns, people, roads and everything else in its path.

But the corps' current flood control plan would never allow that to happen: It calls for blowing large gaps in the earthen levees to let loose the swollen river into the long-unused floodway.

On the same Friday the crest reached St. Louis, Banks briefed his boss, Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division. "We realized we were basically a rain away from some difficult decisions," Banks said.

Worse yet, forecasters were predicting just that - more rain.

That weekend, currents on the Ohio made stronger by the heavy rains swept a towboat and three barges over a dam spillway about 23 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, killing three crew members.

Record rains

All through that week, Liz Anderson had started almost every day by checking the weather report and the river levels. That weekend, Anderson, the owner of the Charleston Enterprise-Courier and The East Prairie Eagle just southwest of Cairo in Missouri, fired off a letter to Gen. Crear that warned against any plan to blow the levee. She urged him to prepare for an all-out flood fight along the existing levees.

"I just didn't think the opening of the floodway was going to have a substantial impact, that it was going to do that much," she said last week while sitting in her wood-paneled office surrounded by photographs, maps, satellite images and other renderings of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

She never heard back.

Just below Cairo, in Dorena, Mo., Milus Gary Wallace also kept a wary eye on the weather. During high water, the Mississippi River laps up against a 60-foot high earthen levee that rises from the ground about 100 yards from his front door.

He plants row crops on 2,000 acres in Mississippi County, in some of Missouri's richest farmland. The land sits squarely in the New Madrid floodway - whose use or lack thereof has long been the source of controversy between environmentalists, flood-control officials and farmers.

If corps officials decided to breach the Bird's Point levee, the river water would submerge about one-third of the county.

A burly man with a thick, drooping mustache and a booming laugh, Wallace, 53, has spent his life on the river. His three oldest siblings were born in a tent atop the levee where his parents first set up house.

"Water don't run me off," Wallace said in a thick southern drawl.

But as the rain continued to fall during the second week of January, he admits he grew uneasy.

"When I get nervous is when we are at 40 feet at Cairo, and it's raining every day," Wallace said.

Cairo reached 40 feet - flood stage- on Jan. 10. Normally the river runs about 26 feet that time of year. The river was still rising and the rain was still coming and now forecasters were calling for the river to exceed 50 feet.

That same day, Carlyle Lake in Illinois was 10 feet above its normal winter level. As the lakes rose, water spilled into campgrounds. Some parking lots flooded, and boat ramps closed. Meanwhile, corps officials in St. Louis asked to release water from the Shelbyville and Carlyle dams but were denied permission to prevent another surge of water toward Cairo.

In the Ohio River Valley, knowing that a second crest was soon to follow, officials held off on using the dams on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, which both flow into the Ohio.

"We knew we had more water coming later and they were going to get wet whatever we did," Banks said of the resulting flooding. "Being in the wintertime helped. If we had crops throughout the valley it would have been a tougher decision to make."

By midweek, Wallace, for the first time in a long time, began to fear that the floodway might really be used.

He moved his farm equipment to high ground, emptied beans from his grain bins, fueled up his vehicles, called and checked that all his insurance was up to date and even contemplated moving his motorboat into his garage.

The first 12 days of January would end up being the wettest in a half century in Illinois. Missouri would set a new record for rainfall.

Ready to blow?

On Jan. 13, Banks reported in an e-mail to the general and other corps employees that recent heavy rain in the Ohio Basin had prompted forecasters to predict that a 54.5-foot crest would reach Cairo by Wednesday, Jan. 19. And still another inch-and-a-half of rain was expected.

For the first time, he raised the possibility with his staff that the floodway might be needed.

Under the corps' flood protection plan, residents in the floodway would be evacuated if the river were to reach 59 feet at Cairo.

Anderson, the newspaper owner, is intimately familiar with the plans. She says that when the river is forecast to reach 56 feet and rising at Cairo, barges in Memphis, Tenn., are loaded with explosives. If the river reaches 57 feet with more rise expected, another approval from the general is required to send the barges upriver on the day-and-a-half journey to Cairo.

Banks said that by the time the river got to 60 feet at Cairo, the explosives already would have been loaded into pipes buried within the Bird's Point levee. If the water continued to rise, the explosives would be detonated to create giant gaps for the water to flow through

In his e-mail that day, Banks said: "The only good news we have to share is that the weather trend seems to be breaking such that we might experience a ten day or so period without any significant rain in the valley."

On Friday, Jan. 14, as the river level at Cairo crept near 52 feet, officials in the corps' Memphis District office decided to send a flood fight team to Cairo.

That Sunday, corps employee Tom Morgan and his crew began driving along the tops of the levees making constant inspections of the earth works and floodwalls that protected the city. They searched for leakage, levee slides or sand boils, which often signal weaknesses where a breach might occur. They checked to make sure that high wind wasn't causing waves to lap against the levees and scrape out pockets of soil. The high water caused a sinkhole to appear in the middle of one of the city's main streets, but otherwise the inspectors found no significant problems.

The levees held. The barge remained in Memphis. And then Mother Nature dealt her final card.

The predicted rain ended up being fairly light and fell over a wide area, eliminating the threat of another torrent heading downriver. Behind the moisture came a cold front that brought blue skies, sent temperatures in St. Louis plunging into the single digits and eliminated any chance of more rain over the Ohio or Mississippi valleys.

At 4 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 17, the Ohio River crested at Cairo at 53.2 feet - several feet short of the danger point.

The crisis had passed.

Down in Vicksburg, Banks let out a sigh of relief.

"I don't drink, but that would probably be enough to make a fella think about it," he said.

He doesn't want to focus on the success too much. Next time, he knows, he might not be so lucky.

The ground is still wet, the rivers and lakes are still high. As for the latest forecasts? They call for more wet weather beginning the first week of February.

"We could be starting this all over again," Banks said.

Reporter Phillip O'Connor
Phone: 314-340-8321