The other Cairo
April 30, 2011 5:45 AM   Subscribe

It's not quite the Nile, but there is political strife there too. The Illinois river town of Cairo (KAY-row), IL, is surrounded by the Ohio and the Mississippi, and is in danger of being flooded. The Army Corps of Engineers wants to activate a flood mitigation plan by breaching some levees into spillways designed to mitigate such a flood. Unfortunately, those floodways are in Missouri, and they would rather not have a bunch of farmland flooded just to save some little town in Illinois. Judge Limbaugh (yes) gave the OK, but the battle isn't over yet.
posted by gjc (39 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is this when Reddit saves the town?
posted by TrialByMedia at 6:02 AM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's the NOAA website for flood gauges and predicted crests for the lower Mississippi which covers the area from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to New Orleans. It looks like some areas will see record crests.
posted by euphorb at 6:14 AM on April 30, 2011

Well at least it will be easier to build an ark now. No dinosaurs to accomodate.
posted by three blind mice at 6:21 AM on April 30, 2011

Lots of large Americans though.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:22 AM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is one of the wettest Aprils we've ever had in Illinois; twice as wet as "normal," I'm told. It's pretty soggy here and the rivers show it.

OTOH, I want to point out to both the Illinoisians and the Missourans in the article that, dude, you live on the flood plain of an alluvial river. It floods every year. They all flood every year. My river's in "moderate flood stage" right now. (Which is why, as a general thing, I support riverfront beautification projects -- parks and things -- but only if they can survive being flooded on a yearly basis. Any year they don't flood, you just got lucky ... and the farmers didn't, because you're in a drought. I don't want my tax dollars paying for yearly flood-fixing for the parks because my city built a park in a particularly moronic location with consideration for the fact that it'd flood every year. That said, we have a very nice riverwalk that survives its yearly flooding quite nicely.)

I have a lot of mixed feelings about the river levees. On the one hand, that's a lot of people and a lot of homes and I don't want to see them destroyed, and many of these places have been inhabited for 200 years; they're hardly recent vanity developments. On the other hand, the rivers are going to flood every year, perhaps we ought to consider smarter zoning/building codes and fewer levees and think about how to utilize farmland in concert with an alluvial river rather than fighting against its floods. Not that I think that sort of thing can be accomplished overnight, but plans to build new riverfront housing always gives me a bit of a pain, especially when three years later everyone is shocked -- shocked! -- that it has flooded. We could be a bit more forward-thinking about the costs to the state and the taxpayers to deal with these predictable disasters, and maybe focus on preserving historic riverfront towns that are already there rather than building new riverfront McMansions that will cost a lot to protect that could easily be built a couple miles away.

(And, hey, if people want to live on a riverfront that badly and they can't have a McMansion, maybe they'll revitalize historic river towns by moving into them instead of leaving them to slumify!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:42 AM on April 30, 2011 [15 favorites]

"You're taking about 137,000 acres of some of the best farmland in the world that will be essentially ruined," he said.

Wait, is he talking about the farmland being ruined, as in no longer able to be farmed again, ever? Or is he talking about this year's crops being ruined, which is something else entirely?

When I was in grade school, I was taught that it was largely the annual flooding cycles and the resulting silt deposits which made the farmland in alluvial floodplains so fertile for farming.

Can someone help me understand what the people in this article mean when they say the farmland will be ruined?
posted by hippybear at 6:49 AM on April 30, 2011

"Can someone help me understand what the people in this article mean when they say the farmland will be ruined?"

It means the following: Big Agribusiness pays us a lot of money to run this area to their benefit, the homeowners the next state over pay us nothing..
posted by tomswift at 6:54 AM on April 30, 2011 [7 favorites]

There's no good answer here. I wouldn't want the 3,000 residents of Cairo to be flooded out, but it would also be a shame to just destroy that farmland and flood out the 100 families (~300 to 400 people?) who live on the Missouri side, especially if, as some have intimated on the basis of experience breaking the levee in the 1930s, it may not help Cairo anyway. This is really not an easy cost-benefit analysis—and the Speaker of the Missouri House definitely isn't helping by making smart-ass comments (nor are his friends by laughing at them).

Can someone help me understand what the people in this article mean when they say the farmland will be ruined?

Yeah, I don't understand this either. Maybe it's that given the current way the river is managed, the flood is more likely to wash away the fertile soil in that area than deposit new fertile soil? But that's just speculation on my part. I have no idea how it works these days; I have a feeling a lot of what we learn in school about how the Mississippi in particular works is outdated, given the way things are leveed off and otherwise controlled these days.

The thing I'd wondered about when I first heard about this was whether they'd paid the Missouri families for their land, and it sounds like they have. I wonder how much they've paid them and whether, since it was in advance, it would still be fair compensation. Anyone have more details about how much they pay these people? Not that how much they're paid makes a huge difference—it's still ~300 to 400 people in that area of Missouri vs. 3,000 people in Cairo. But there are certainly unknowns, including how much will this help Cairo, how will this affect the land going forward, how much that land contributes, foodwise, in the first place, and whether it's worth saving that at the cost of potentially displacing the people of Cairo. I will say, I'm not really swayed by the argument that that land represents a third of the revenue for that particular Missouri county.

I want to point out to both the Illinoisians and the Missourans in the article that, dude, you live on the flood plain of an alluvial river. It floods every year.

Yeah, the Illinois family quoted doesn't come off so well. Like really, you live across the road from the river and you're surprised this is happening, and you want 100 families to move so you don't have to? On the other hand, the Cairo mayor doesn't really seem the least bit surprised that Missouri might try to save its own at Cairo's expense. It reminds me of the way Cairo was portrayed in American Gods.
posted by limeonaire at 7:01 AM on April 30, 2011

Can someone help me understand what the people in this article mean when they say the farmland will be ruined?

I suspect, without levees and other engineering, a good portion of the farmland adjacent to the river would naturally be underwater (at least periodically), or wetlands. I'm also guessing the (alluvial) fertility of the soil prompted reclamation, but that the farmers / ag business there have long come to rely on chemical fertilizers, no longer think they need seasonal flooding, and are lobbying with that in mind.

I can't find a good reference for the Ohio River right now, though.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:06 AM on April 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

He [Judge Limbaugh] currently lives in Cape Girardeau with his wife, the former Marsha M. Limbaugh.

posted by pjern at 7:43 AM on April 30, 2011

see: new orleans and st. bernard parish, 1927.

the farmland will not be ruined, just the crops. We are trying to get the Army Corps to bust the levees down in the Louisiana Delta, as a means of wetland restoration, and thus coastal protection, since the lands built by the river are our storm buffer.
posted by eustatic at 7:50 AM on April 30, 2011

Yes, its those Limbaughs
posted by Ironmouth at 7:59 AM on April 30, 2011

You know why Dutch politics is so obsessed with find consensus? If it wasn't we'd need gills.
posted by atrazine at 8:31 AM on April 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

When I hear of Cairo I can't help but think of American Gods.
posted by Windigo at 8:54 AM on April 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

From a short Reuters news story.

"Missouri claims the action would damage the farmland, leaving a layer of silt that would take a generation to clear. "

Silty bottomland was always the best farmland. Why is this different?
posted by jjj606 at 9:11 AM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]



Both excellent threads about the heritage of the city.
posted by mwhybark at 10:02 AM on April 30, 2011

NIMBYism at its worst.
posted by Carius at 10:04 AM on April 30, 2011

Re: Limbaugh and Cape Giraudeau

Holy crap! I've been working on the Whybark family tree at Ancestry and just the other day noticed a distaff relation who married a Limbaugh in Cape Giradeau in 1831. I thought, "Huh, couldn't be."

posted by mwhybark at 10:08 AM on April 30, 2011

Anyone who thinks their farmland would be ruined by having fresh river silt added to it does not know how their farmland came to exist in the first place and shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a farm.
posted by localroger at 11:37 AM on April 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

The water rises gradually with a flood. When a levee is breached or blown the resulting cataract is very damaging.

I crossed the Miss R on I-57 at Cairo Fri aft. The highway goes over the Miss R levee and the water was a good 10 ft below the top and I saw nothing to lead me to believe Cairo was in peril.

The Missouri spillway may have to be used but it's a decision that should not be made lightly.
posted by wrapper at 11:43 AM on April 30, 2011

I would really like an actual agronomist to show up here and explain the concern over river silt being deposited on the farmland. It sounds suspicious to me, as well, but chances are it isn't quite as simple as it sounds to me. Perhaps it has something to do with the Mississippi being the most polluted waterway in the United States.
posted by TrialByMedia at 11:49 AM on April 30, 2011

Would farmers' insurance pay for damage if the fields were flooded?
posted by Carius at 12:04 PM on April 30, 2011

The highway goes over the Miss R levee and the water was a good 10 ft below the top and I saw nothing to lead me to believe Cairo was in peril.

You are aware that most of the water isn't there yet, right? The whole idea is to avert the catastrophe before it happens.

As to what happens when a levee breaks, I might know more about that than you realize from living and working in New Orleans. It does major damage to buildings, sure, but land is land and flooding does not "destroy" land, river flooding builds it up. If you believe otherwise I invite you to explain it to the army of machine operators who had to scrape all the fresh silt off the streets in the Ninth Ward.
posted by localroger at 12:23 PM on April 30, 2011

I'm from the school that says don't create an unecessary disaster to prevent a possible disaster.
posted by wrapper at 1:45 PM on April 30, 2011

I'm from the school that says don't create a certain disaster to prevent a possible disaster.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 2:10 PM on April 30, 2011

In some factories badly performing workers are required to be publicly humiliated in front of colleagues.

To be fair, this it totally on brand for Apple.
posted by Scoo at 2:47 PM on April 30, 2011

Wrapper and Ferdinand: The evacuation from New Orleans ahead of Katrina was a very likely disaster; the last attempt at contraflow evacuation failed horribly. But sometimes risk is rewarded. Those who accept no risk at all are known in the casino of life as "losers."
posted by localroger at 4:00 PM on April 30, 2011

Took another look at Cairo's Miss R levee today. No change from Friday but the 2 day respite from rain is over. Raining off and on all day.

As far as I know the decision to blow the Missouri levees has yet to be made.
posted by wrapper at 4:17 PM on April 30, 2011

Wrapper: there may be areas of levee that have a lower flood level than the ones you see. And levee'd rivers tend to rise very quickly, as their shores are not as gradual as natural rivers.

Silt: the way I heard it explained on the radio the other day was that the silt will clog up the soil on the farmland. It is an aggregate that is larger than clay but smaller than sand. So it would take at least a few seasons to get it all tilled and ready to be planted again.

Not to mention the washing away of fences, roads, equipment, silos and whatnot.

Still, all the people (according to the radio) who farm that land have leases/deeds that say "go ahead and use the land, but you never know when we will have to flood you out".
posted by gjc at 7:12 PM on April 30, 2011

I'm from the school that says don't create a certain disaster to prevent a possible disaster.

But the levee system was designed this way. I don't know the engineering reason why they weren't just made taller, but the design says "when the water hits X level, load the barges with explosives, and when the water hits Y level, blow it up". When the water hits level Y, a disaster is imminent.
posted by gjc at 7:18 PM on April 30, 2011

Wrapper, et al:

The Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service, which euphorb linked above, is really very good and the predictions are typically fairly accurate. I've linked to the Cairo forecast. It adjusts constantly for current and expected rainfall, and is typically very accurate about WHEN the river will crest, though the height of the crest is a moving target based on rainfall. (But I find them really quite accurate for my location.)

If you scroll down lower, you'll see record floods for that site as well as what the effects of the flood are at different river heights. Cairo is currently about to top its own river height record (59.29 feet now, 59.5 record), and is showing a very soft crest at 60.5 feet (that is, it flatlines and doesn't come down). Upcoming effects as the river rises:

65 The river will reach the top of the protectio at Mounds and Mound City.
64 The river will reach the top of the protection of Cairo.
59.5 This flood will exceed the highest stage on record.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:18 PM on April 30, 2011

Thanks for the info, guys.
posted by wrapper at 7:28 PM on April 30, 2011

Evacuation ordered due to "sand boil."
posted by wallstreet1929 at 9:14 AM on May 1, 2011

The Corps of Engineers has decided to blast the levy tonight and flood the Missouri land. One of these days, though, Cairo's "luck" will run out.
posted by General Tonic at 4:15 PM on May 2, 2011

They did the first explosion of the levee about 15 minutes ago. It's dark, but the TV cameras caught the flash and the sound. Looked and sounded like the timed explosions they use when they are imploding a building.

There will be another explosion sometime after 1am in the southern (New Madrid) portion of the flood way to open up the outflow levee so the water can flow out back towards the Mississippi.

Guess we'll see what it looks like tomorrow morning.
posted by MultiFaceted at 8:19 PM on May 2, 2011

Related: Bobby Jindal announced this evening that the Army Corps of Engineers will likely open the Morganza Spillway "within the next 24 hours."
posted by maryr at 6:05 PM on May 13, 2011

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