Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Flood danger spreads along Mississippi

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

NEW ORLEANS ? Three recent explosions at levees have helped ease the dangerously swollen Mississippi River, though the waterway continues to rise to historic levels and threatens to overrun some cities, the Army Corps of Engineers says.

  • Worries rise as towns along the Mississippi River brace for more flooding.

    By Stephen Lance Dennee, AP

    Worries rise as towns along the Mississippi River brace for more flooding.

By Stephen Lance Dennee, AP

Worries rise as towns along the Mississippi River brace for more flooding.

Emergency officials from Missouri to Mississippi scrambled Wednesday to prepare for potential flooding as the river continued to rise. Fears have prompted an emergency declaration for 920,000 residents in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County, Tenn., where authorities blocked some suburban streets and more than 200 people evacuated to shelters.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, asked the White House to declare 11 counties along the river disaster areas in anticipation of flooding, as Vicksburg, Natchez and other riverfront communities braced for floods.

President Obama on Wednesday declared parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky disasters, making them eligible for federal help with relief efforts.

Heavy snowmelts from Minnesota and North Dakota combined with three large rain events this year have triggered the rising river levels, says Bob Anderson, an Army Corps spokesman based in Vicksburg, Miss. While the levee breaches helped bring down water levels in some areas, relentless water pressure continued to threaten river communities in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys.

"There's never been a flood of this magnitude on the upper Mississippi," Anderson says. "It's testing the outer limits of our system."

Using chemical explosives, Army Corps engineers on Monday blew a 2-mile-long gash into the Bird Point's levees in southeastern Missouri, just south of where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet.

The breach relieved some of the river's pressure by flooding 130,000 nearby acres and 100 homes in Missouri, affecting about 300 people, Anderson says.

Farmers whose properties are in the spillway created by the levee blasts have filed a class action lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, alleging that the agency's decision to divert the floodwaters toward the area of their properties violated their constitutional property rights. The lawsuit seeks an as-yet unspecified amount of damages.

Farmer Martin Hutcheson, whose family has farmed in the area since the early 1900s, flew over the area Wednesday and said it was "devastating" to see his property under water. About 5,000 of his 9,850 tillable acres are affected by the spillway, he said.

The decision to blow up the levees was made as river levels threatened to overrun cities such as Cairo, Ill., and burst through levee systems further downriver, Anderson says.

Eversley reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: The Associated Press

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