- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Flood worries that prompted the U.S. government to blast open a Missouri levee to ease pressure on some towns are rippling down the Mississippi River, leading to more evacuations and unease as the Army Corps of Engineers weighs whether to purposely inundate more land with water.

The breach of southeastern Missouri’s Birds Point levee was heralded by some Illinois towns along the Ohio River as a needed relief from record flooding, and the man who ordered that action said he may do the same with other Mississippi River spillways as flood prospects mount.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said he understood the farmers’ frustration at the corps’ decision to sacrifice the levee Monday and send a wall of water over 130,000 acres of farmland that the state of Missouri tried suing to save.

“But this was one of the relief valves for the system,” he said. “We were forced to use that valve.”

That calculation to draw down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the nation’s midsection appeared to do its job. On Tuesday night, the Ohio at Metropolis, Ill., measured about the same level it had been at the time of the blast. Without that breach, the river was forecast to have steadily crept up to a crest of more than 58 feet.

In Cairo, the Ohio had dropped to 60 feet, about a foot and a half lower than it was at the time of the breach. Cairo, a town of about 2,800 residents, is at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Downstream of Cairo — in southeastern Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana — concerns grew as the Mississippi River continues to rise.

After the levee was blasted, Joe Harrison noticed the effects. Mr. Harrison, who lives near Hickman, Ky., said floodwater from the Mississippi turned his house into an island, high enough to remain dry but surrounded by water. He has been using a boat to get to his car, securely parked on dry ground farther down the highway that runs by his home.

Mr. Harrison estimated that the water around his home dropped 12 to 18 inches, enough so that he can once again see the mailbox at the end of his driveway.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” the 78-year-old said.

Officials in Tennessee were concerned that the breathing space provided by the levee break may be only temporary, delaying when the floodwaters crest, because the water that was diverted is beginning to drain back into the Mississippi.

Memphis, where the Mississippi was at 43.8 feet Tuesday, could see a near-record crest of 48 feet on May 11, just inches lower than the record of 48.7 feet in 1937. Water from the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers has seeped into parts of the suburbs, and some mobile home parks were swamped.

Flooding has begun in Dyersburg, which is about 70 miles north-northeast of Memphis. Mayor John Holden said people in parts of that city near the North Fork of the Forked Deer River should evacuate. 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 set during catastrophic floods in 1927 and a decade later.

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