Triage: Record floods cause Army Corps to blow up levee, inundate 130,000 acres of farmland to save small town


Flooding on the Mississippi in Missouri at the end of April. Image credit: USACE

File this under Annals of Adaptation:

The Army Corps exploded the Birds Point levee near Wyatt, Mo., after nightfall Monday, potentially sacrificing 130,000 acres of rich farmland and about 100 homes in Missouri to spare the town of Cairo, Ill., with its 2,800 residents, located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

But even as the Corps carried out its bid to save the city, floodwaters were rising downriver, including in Memphis, Tenn. And the breach in the Birds Point levee wasn’t expected to ease those flooding concerns.

Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, who made the decision to blast, said it was a heart-wrenching but necessary move.

As record-smashing deluges and floods become commonplace — along with Dust-Bowlification — so will a host of tragic triage decisions (discussed here).

Here is the video of the explosion, followed by meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters discussing the record flooding that led to it:

Masters writes about the “unprecedented Mississippi River flood“:

The fact that the Army Corps is intentionally causing 1/3 of billion dollars in damage is stark evidence of just how serious this flood is. The Birds Point levee has been demolished only once before, during the 1937 flood.

The gauge on the Ohio River at Cairo was at record highs over the past few days, but the river level is now falling, thanks to the demolition of the Birds Point levee.

Unprecedented flooding on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers
Snow melt from this winter’s record snow pack across the Upper Mississippi River has formed a pulse of flood waters that is moving downstream on the Mississippi. This pulse of flood waters passed St. Louis on Saturday, where the river is now falling. The snow melt pulse arrived on Monday at Thebes, Illinois, about 20 miles upstream from the Mississippi/Ohio River junction at Cairo. The Mississippi River crested yesterday at Thebes at 45.52′, which beats 1993 as the 2nd highest Mississippi River flood of all-time at Thebes. This floodwater pulse is headed south to Cairo, Illinois, and will join with the record water flow coming out of the Ohio River to create the highest flood heights ever recorded on a long stretch of the Mississippi, according to the latest forecasts from the National Weather Service. Along a 400-mile stretch of the Mississippi, from Cairo to Natchez, Mississippi the Mississippi is expected to experience the highest flood heights since records began over a century ago at 5 of the 10 gauges on the river. The records are predicted to begin to fall on May 1 at New Madrid, end progress downstream to Natchez by May 15. Areas that are not protected by levees can expect extensive damage from the flooding.

The Mississippi River at New Madrid, MO, about 40 miles downstream of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, crested at 46.54′ this morning, the 2nd highest flood in history. The river is now falling, thanks to the blowing of the Birds Point levee, but is predicted to rise to 50 feet late this week, two feet above the all-time record height of 48 feet. The NWS warns that at this height, “Large amounts of property damage can be expected. Evacuation of many homes and businesses becomes necessary.” Previous record heights at this location:

(1) 48.00 ft on 02/03/1937
(2) 46+ ft on 05/03/2011
(2) 44.60 ft on 04/09/1913
(3) 43.60 ft on 04/04/1975
(4) 43.50 ft on 02/16/1950
(5) 42.94 ft on 03/17/1997

The “Project Flood”
The levees on the Lower Mississippi River are meant to withstand a “Project Flood”–the type of flood the Army Corps of Engineers believes is the maximum flood that could occur on the river, equivalent to a 1-in-500 year flood. The Project Flood was conceived in the wake of the greatest natural disaster in American history, the great 1927 Mississippi River flood. Since the great 1927 flood, there has never been a Project Flood on the Lower Mississippi, downstream from the confluence with the Ohio River (there was a 500-year flood on the Upper Mississippi in 1993, though.) On Sunday, Major General Michael Walsh of the Army Corps of Engineers, President of the organization entrusted to make flood control decisions on the Mississippi, stated: “The Project Flood is upon us. This is the flood that engineers envisioned following the 1927 flood. It is testing the system like never before.”

At Cairo, the project flood is estimated at 2.36 million cubic feet per second (cfs). The current prediction for the flow rate at New Madrid, the Mississippi River gauge just downstream from Cairo, is 1.89 million cfs on May 7, so this flood is not expected to be a 1-in-500 year Project Flood. In theory, the levee system is designed to withstand this flood. But the Army Corps is in for the flood fight of its life, and it will be a long a difficult few weeks.

This is the shape of things to come, as future deluges become more and more intense — and 1-in-500 and even 1-in-1000 year events become commonplace by midcentury.  We already saw Tennessee’s 1000-year deluge, and coastal North Carolina’s suffered its second 500-year rainfall in 11 years.

But we remain unprepared for the extreme weather we already have today (see “Missouri levee failure highlights need to increase infrastructure investments and prepare for climate change“).

If only someone had put forward legislation that could have funded real adaptation, so we’d be spared the other kind aka abandonment and triage and misery.

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36 Responses to Triage: Record floods cause Army Corps to blow up levee, inundate 130,000 acres of farmland to save small town

  1. Don A in Pennsyltucky says:

    No one ever stops to consider that the levee is a cause of the flood. Without the levee, no one would be stupid enough to build that close to the river.

  2. Richard Brenne says:

    Tragically triage is going to become one of the most-used and most important words in our national and global vocabularies.

  3. Richard Brenne says:

    Recently I was skiing on Mt. Hood and rode up the chairlift looking at the rapidly disappearing White River Glacier (60% loss of volume since 1900) with an Army Corps engineer from a distant state. We got to talking about climate change (as always) and its myriad impacts and he said, “I’m not going to tell you my name so you can’t quote me directly, but there were many in the Army Corps who felt rebuilding New Orleans was a bad idea.”

    Again, tragically that’s the kind of triage we’re talking about over time. During the one-time golden era of cheap and abundant fossil fuels and resulting wealth and excess, we thought we could have it all. We can’t.

  4. Davos says:

    I had a question about this, so I figure I’d ask it here… Would not the presence of levees on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers actually lead to higher crests that the same water would have caused in earlier floods (say, in 1927)?

    I’m not saying that these floods are devastating nor incredible…I’m just wondering about their direct comparability. Were the levees around to the same extent in both eras?

    Seems like the more levees we’re building, and the more flooding we get, the higher the water will rise within them, then the higher we’ve got to build them, etc… perhaps everywhere along the River will look like New Orlean’s flood protection.

  5. Richard L says:

    How can a small town of 2,800 residents be worth several years of crops from 130,000 acres of farmland? The farmland may be waterlogged for quite some time….

  6. Wit's End says:

    It’s possible that this mess has been exacerbated by people building where they shouldn’t and attempting to hold back natural forces.

    [JR: No doubt. Then again people keep building lots of places that AGW says is unwise. That’s what makes triage so hard and inevitable.]

    A very interesting examination here:

    “To restate, briefly: the river has been trying for a century to change its lower course, as it had previously done periodically, and was shifting its flow toward the Atchafalaya River, which would take it into the Gulf of Mexico at Morgan City, 65 miles west of New Orleans. In the 1950s, seeing the economic disaster that would be precipitated by this change, the Congress ordered the US Army Corps of Engineers to prevent it.
    The Corps built the Old River Control Structure — a huge set of flood gates — on a channel connecting the two rivers to enforce the Congressional mandate that no more than 30% of the Mississippi’s flow would be permitted to enter the Atchafalaya. The war against nature — that is what the Corps called it — was in the “mission accomplished” category for ten years after its construction, that is, until 1973. (More detailed history here.)”

  7. Seb Power says:

    Meanwhile, across the pond in little Britain, the opposite is happening. England and Wales have received 79% less than average rainfall:

  8. Sasparilla says:

    I believe the area flooded was a designated flood plane – as in the Army Corps of Engineers has said since the construction of the levee was built this area could be used as a flood plane in the event of this terrible type of flood (the levees would be blown and this area flooded) – this was something that the people who built and farmed there should have and probably did know (doesn’t make the medicine taste any better going down).

    Now that our weather is being “enhanced” by climate change, alot more of these once in 1000 year tabs will be coming due.

    This is one of those inevitable, it will happen, its only a question of when things. There has been an ugly a little battle in the local media where the few relatively wealthy farmers (and their representatives in KY) in the area wanted the poor city in IL to be flooded as opposed to flooding the designated flood plane (and farmers fields). Of course this type of flood will happen again – but the land is very rich – will most of these people go back and farm it next year?

  9. MarkF says:

    off topic, but, is anyone like Joe thinking of attending this conference to publicly rebut these people?





  10. Lionel A says:

    Thebes Illinois – how ironic considering the long history of Nile flooding that helped sustain a growing population of Egypt – until the floods failed too. The history of human civilization is replete with periods of agriculture supported growth followed by collapse. Floods, droughts, plagues and pestilence follows on the heels of climatic shifts as anybody with a true, i.e. broad, education will understand. Jarred Diamond is a must read, ‘Collapse’, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ and ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee’. Whilst on the topic of anthropogenic evolution that germs bit has deeper meaning than many realise as Frank Ryan’s ‘Evolution’ reveals. It would seem that viruses have played a substantial role in that evolution and have added bits to our genome.

  11. Lionel A says:

    Oops. Frank Ryan’s book is ‘Virolution’. Doh!

  12. dhogaza says:

    I believe the area flooded was a designated flood plane – as in the Army Corps of Engineers has said since the construction of the levee was built this area could be used as a flood plane in the event of this terrible type of flood (the levees would be blown and this area flooded)

    Well, yes, it was constructed with 11,000 feet of pipe in it so they could fill it with liquid explosive and blow the dam.

    Don A:

    No one ever stops to consider that the levee is a cause of the flood. Without the levee, no one would be stupid enough to build that close to the river.

    Cairo predates the levees … the mississippi, ohio, missouri etc rivers were the only way to get any volume goods to market before the rise of the railroad. There were a large number of small towns built along these rivers starting in the early 1800s. One of them was Hannibal, home of Mark Twain. Lincoln worked on river boats, taking goods as far as New Orleans.

    The levees were built to protect existing villages and farms bordering the river. Levees can make the river rise higher as someone asked above, because the old flood plains are walled off and water that in the 18th and early 19th century would’ve spread across the land during a flood is pushed downstream where it’s joined by water from tributaries etc.

    I’m glad I’m not the guy who had to make the decision to blow it.

  13. dhogaza says:

    The other thing is that once you start building levees, you’re pretty much committed to protecting areas downstream with more and more of them.

    And, of course, when they first started building levees along the Mississippi that put an end to its normal habit of changing its course year to year, with new islands arising, old ones becoming connected to land, etc. That endless variability along a constantly shifting, relatively shallow river is why being a Mississippi RIver steamboat pilot was such a highly regarded profession back in the day. Twain was proud of having been one, rightly so.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    There may be other triage-type benefits to come over the course of the next weeks from breaking the levee.

    Water is expected to stay on on the 130,000 acres of farm land for three months or more, per the following report. The lower end of the flood plain also has to be blasted open at a later date. The “muddy lake” can hold water until the Mississippi can handle it. The expectation of “late July or early August” suggests a long holding time.

    From Associated Press report carried by ABC news:

    “But farmers like Bob Byrne are worried about the long-term impact of the levee breaks.

    “It’s a sickening feeling,” Byrne told The Associated Press.”They’re talking about not getting the water off until late July or early August. That knocks out a whole season.”

    The corps is expected to detonate more explosives at the southern end of the floodway to drain the water from the farmlands.”


  15. Kota says:

    I doubt the reason at the ‘top’ was really about trying to save the little town.
    I think it’s still about oil. The Mississippi changes course and the refineries are ‘up a creek without a paddle’.
    Any flood waters that can be spread out before it gets down there is probably going to get spread.

  16. Wit's End says:

    The point is, JR, that it isn’t necessarily AGW that says building in certain places is stupid. Even without AGW, building in flood plains, or earthquake and volcanic prone areas, is begging disastrous loss of human life. So is an exponentially expanding human population, which is inexorably crushing out all other species of life, from rampant consumption.

    We are just beyond stupid, I guess. We have a suicidal death wish!

  17. John D says:

    The area flooded has been designated a floodway (spillway), even though not used as such for over 70 years. The farmland will not be “lost” – much of it will likely be improved from the nutrients and sediments deposited, though some could also be negatively impacted by sand. One assumes that most farmers have crop insurance of some kind, though farming in a designated spillway may mean some forms of compensation are not available.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Wit’s End #16, I come to the same conclusion every time I see a rabble of Dunning-Kruger ssp Joyce-ites (the bunyip variety)capering and leaping, gesticulating and bellowing, at public ‘meetings’ to oppose environmental measures. My current ‘favourite’ is the imbecility of fishers and anglers opposing marine reserves. There is almost no dissent from the science that says that reserves, proposed in South Australia to cover 10 to 26% of coastal waters, will provide refuges and nurseries for fish stocks, and make fishing far more productive outside those areas. Yet the imbeciles, urged on by Rightwing media and politicians, refuse to see sense, refuse to do without their ‘favourite fishing spots’, refuse to see that fish stocks are plummeting, and play the usual Rightwing bully and braggart’s game of shouting and threatening until they get their way.
    There are a number of fault-lines along which the fissures are widening, undermining human existence on this planet. One is the maldistribution of intelligence, knowledge and understanding amongst humanity. People so stupid, so shortsighted, so gullible, that they can be manipulated to act precisely against their own interests abound. In fact I’m certain that, after decades of relentless brainwashing to believe that greedy, atomised, self-indulgent individualism is the highest good, their numbers are rising, rapidly. They all have a vote, a vote that is up for sale, to the highest bidder, the one who, mendaciously, of course, promises more ‘pie-in-the-sky’. The Right enjoys a natural advantage in appealing to this type because they have fewer, if any, qualms over lying, presenting a false front and dissembling in order to get their way. Thus we go on, merrily to our doom, certain that sufficient bellowing and gibbering will make reality bend itself to satisfy our monstrous ego demands.

  19. Mark says:

    The earth-processes that make the levees a problem, at least for the lower Mississippi, are clearly described in this chapter:

  20. Joan Savage says:

    Davos (#4)

    Technically a river is in flood if it overruns its banks, so your question draws attention to a shift in threshold for flooding when the banks are raised up. With a deeper channel and higher levees, a flow that would otherwise have caused mild to moderate flooding is prevented. The big question has to do with the channel capacity, but only for big floods!

    Joe Romm wrote about the US Army Corps of Engineers “Project Flood” preparation for a 1 in 500-year flood.

    The USACOE gives the cubic feet per second (cfs) numbers for which the system is designed.

    The Project Flood

    The flood control plan is designed to control the “project flood.” It is a flood larger than the record flood of 1927. At Cairo, the project flood is estimated at 2,360,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The project flood is 11 percent greater than the flood of 1927 at the mouth of the Arkansas River and 29 percent greater at the latitude of Red River Landing, amounting to 3,030,000 cfs at that location, about 60 miles below Natchez.

  21. Same Ordinary Fool says:

    The last time the Bird’s Point levee was similarly opened to relieve flood pressure was in 1937.

    What is the status of the other (agricultural land) designated flood plains down stream?

    Often the designated flood plain land owners have had the political clout to prevent such flood relief efforts.

  22. John Mashey says:

    Just to be clear, this isn’t just the Corps taking advantage of the farmers to save the town:

    Cairo, Ill = 9.1 sq miles = 5,800 acres.
    130,000 acres = 22X larger.

    If you have X acre-feet of water that have to go somewhere, which place would you send it? Put another way, it was that 130,000 acres, or about the same acreage somewhere else, of which Cairo would be a small part.

    By the way, the politics are akin to those one can expect in dealing with sea level rise. You can build levees at Y, or further uphill at Z, at lower cost. Those who live between Y and Z may well have a different view than those who live above Z.

  23. malcreado says:

    “If the world has a poor harvest this year, food prices will rise to previously unimaginable levels. Food riots will multiply, political unrest will spread and governments will fall. The world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets. ” Lester Brown

    The flooding looks to have a big impact on the harvest.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    malcreado #21, after decades of warnings, all contemptuously dismissed by Rightwing cornutopians and ideologues as ‘alarmism’, the collapse is arriving frighteningly quickly. I think that the Masters fully realise this, and probably welcome the coming Malthusian cull of ‘useless eaters’. I have a suspicion that the decision to terminate the Obama scare and use ‘extreme prejudice’ to this end on some poor patsy in Pakistan portends some really dire and, naturally, violent consequences.

  25. BillD says:

    This posting suggests that melting of the snow pack is the main cause of flooding in the Mississippi River. However, as someone who is living in the Midwest, I also know that we had a slightly dry early April and an exceptionally wet late April and early May. Farmers are wondering when corn can be planted and hoping for some warm, dry weather. Perhaps the rains coincided with the snow melt, but heavy and steady rains, with rather cool weather must be playing a significant role in the flooding. The Ohio River, for example, is filled by rains, not by snow melt.

  26. Colorado Bob says:

    The operator of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant says that seawater radioactivity fifteen kilometres offshore has risen significantly. Plant operator TEPCO reports it is 600 times the maximum allowed by law.

  27. Colorado Bob says:

    Heat Waves Putting Pressure on Nuclear Power’s Outmoded Cooling Technologies
    Power generated from coal, natural gas and nuclear withdraws more freshwater per year than the entire agricultural sector; nuclear uses the most

    Preliminary data from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an environmental and nuclear watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass., shows that seven nuclear units at five facilities had to reduce generating capacity due to warm waters on at least 15 occasions between May and September 2010. The plants were in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Georgia. While such incidents didn’t affect plant safety, they posed economic risk and decreased power availability.

    In one case, which did not appear in the UCS database, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry station near Athens, Ala., lost over $50 million dollars when it was forced to run at half capacity for eight weeks last summer, passing the price surge to customers.

  28. Colorado Bob says:

    According to Singapore’s national water agency, PUB, about 90 mm of rain fell in less than one hour (between 3.00pm – 4.00pm). The amount of rainfall is approximately more than 50% of the average monthly rainfall for May.

  29. cope says:

    Well, that “rich farmland” wouldn’t be so were it not for myriad floods inundating it before human efforts to control the river.

    It reminds me of my freshman year in college in western Illinois when I was among a group of students who volunteered to go throw sandbags as the Mississippi was rising. It was a bright sunny day and I couldn’t help but note the irony as we shored up a levee protecting agricultural land that stretched as far as the eye could see.

    When I signed up, I had naive thoughts of protecting homes, stores, the train station and probably an orphanage.

    So it goes.

  30. Richard L says:


    A fisheries story I read about a few years ago (no references) in New England, USA: lobsterman were up in arms about proposed catch limits, none were set, or loosey/unenforceably set. The lobster population declined. Then, years later, the lobster industry asked, why did the government let the place be overfished and not stop it earlier!! Of course they didn’t reference the fact that they fought the limits!

  31. Leland Palmer says:

    There are many, many coal fired power plants along both the Mississippi river and Ohio rivers. They were built there for cooling water, and for access to river barge transport for coal. These are no doubt some of the economic factors that persuaded Congress to task the Army Corps of Engineers to wage their war against nature and stop the river from wandering.

    I believe that these coal fired power plants are prime candidates to be transformed into BECCS (BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage) power plants, receiving biomass and charcoal from upstream- perhaps hundreds of miles upstream.

    So, I think we have to maintain the levee system at least until we succeed in putting a lot of carbon back underground. Chances are, we need to maintain it indefinitely, to avoid the huge economic costs of the river wandering. Like previous decision makers on this issue, likely the end conclusion of any future studies will be that we just have to keep dredging to keep the existing channel open.

    The whole system is unraveling, and will continue to do so at an accelerated pace in the coming years, I think. The paid off Congressmen who have jumped on the Koch funded Tea Party bandwagon will find this out, over and over again, in the future, as the huge costs of adaptation versus remediation of climate change start to become apparent. Having made their money and retired, chances are they won’t care.

    Unfortunately, by then it may be too late to prevent true runaway climate change and a methane catastrophe, of course, as we readers of Climate Progress know.

  32. malcreado says:

    >This posting suggests that melting of the snow pack is the main cause of flooding in the Mississippi River.

    The upper Mississippi is not flooding (much above a normal year) so this looks like rain to me, but I cant speak to the Ohio river system.

  33. Prokaryotes says:

    39 mins ago (Google Frontpage News, as always no climate change reporting from the biased MSM! EPIC FAIL!)

    Rising waters continue to pose flood risks for thousands

    Tornados, heavy rains and rising pressure on the region’s waterways are giving scores of people to worry.

    Powerful storms and record-breaking rains caused a deluge of of water to spawn heavy flooding in several central and southern states.

    “There is no way on God’s earth that we can control nature,” Illinois Governor Pat Quinn said during a visit to the flooded region. “We have to respect nature. And we are going to do our mightiest to make sure that people are safe and sound.”

    Read more:

    So lets Pray for less water? Amen!

  34. dhogaza says:

    There are many, many coal fired power plants along both the Mississippi river and Ohio rivers.

    My father grew up in illinois across the ohio river from paducah ky, and was in favor of nuclear energy for just this reason. As he put it, he’d grown up around coal power and it was dirty, and mining it was a dangerous ugly business.

  35. Lou Grinzo says:

    I’ve been talking about triage, specifically how we’ve transformed Earth not into McKibben’s “Eaarth” but something much more extreme, Planet Triage, for some time. And every time I mention it on my site I get hate mail from people who can’t or don’t want to connect the dots calling me a doomer.

    Wait until we have the next major shortfall in grain production in China, and that country has to go on the international market to buy an unprecedented amount of food (much more than they did recently). And when prices go ballistic and suddenly those living near food insecurity are pushed into it and aid groups are buying much less food because of the high prices and the world turns to the US and says, “You guys are turning 35% of your corn crop into ethanol? Seriously?” That’s when things will start to get very nasty.

    Welcome to Planet Triage. Mind the (energy/water/food) gap.

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    RichardL, it’s called ‘selective amnesia’, and the Right excel at it. Something to do with the inability to ever acknowledge error, owing to hypertrophied egomania, and it makes intellectual growth impossible. When growth and development are impossible, stultification and petrification follow, and, hey presto, the triumphant Rightwing Dunning-Krugerite leaps into the world (from out of that mighty Jove, Rush Limbaugh, or one of his ilk’s, brow).