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Missouri takes levee battle to U.S. Supreme Court

By Ashley Hayes, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Missouri is asking the high court for an injunction
  • The river is continuing to rise
  • Crews move closer to fulfilling plan to breach levee on the Mississippi
  • The breach will flood Missouri farmland, officials say, but save an Illinois town

(CNN) -- Missouri on Sunday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt a plan to intentionally breach a levee on the rain-swollen Mississippi River, flooding Missouri farmland in an effort to save an Illinois town.

Earlier, Missouri filed a federal suit to block the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from following through on its plan to breach the Birds Point-New Madrid levee. A federal judge on Friday ruled against Missouri, saying a 1928 law permits the breach of the levee to ease pressure on the river.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed an application for an injunction to the high court on Sunday. It was assigned to Justice Samuel Alito, according to the U.S. Supreme Court's website.

The Corps of Engineers says the action is necessary to save the town of Cairo, Illinois, although it will flood rural Missouri farm communities. "I know that the price being paid is high," said Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh on Saturday.

"Demolition of the levee, however, will cause serious flooding across large portions of Mississippi County," Koster's office said in a statement Thursday, when the federal suit was filed.

Koster believes the 1928 law is unclear "as to whether the Corps of Engineers actually has authority to make the decision to detonate the levee," the statement said.

As of 3 p.m. (4 p.m. ET), the gauge at Cairo -- where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River -- stood at 59.97 feet, a record level. Flood stage is 40 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

Barges containing the explosives have been moved from Kentucky to Birds Point, officials said Sunday -- a sign to residents that the breach is imminent.

The Birds Point-New Madrid Joint Information Center said on its Facebook page that Walsh has directed crews "to be prepared to move to (the) next step" in the operational plan as of Sunday afternoon. That step involves repositioning the barges at Birds Point, the information center said. If Walsh directs the plan to move forward, the next steps involve loading the explosives and priming the system, according to the posting.

In an afternoon briefing, Walsh "emphasized the historic levels at Cairo are putting pressure on the entire system like we have never seen," the joint information center posted. "We are still monitoring the entire system and the conditions."

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon plans to speak to reporters later Sunday after touring parts of the state that would be affected by the breach. More than 700 Missouri National Guard troops are on the ground in the area, "securing the homes and personal property of those who have been evacuated," Nixon's office said.

"The potential consequences resulting from the Corps' proposed action are significant to both Missouri and Illinois," Koster said Thursday. "There are no 'good' options at this juncture. Nonetheless, given the long-term effects of the federal government's proposal to blow the levee on so many Missouri citizens, we are demanding a review by the federal court before the detonation is allowed to go forward."

Banning the Corps from acting "would directly threaten the nearly 3,000 residents of Cairo," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office said in a statement Friday. "If the levees protecting Cairo are breached, water levels in the city will rise 18 to 20 feet, a height that reaches above most two-story buildings."

Meanwhile, in Dexter, Missouri, Amanda Jones spent much of her Sunday morning in tears, bouncing from her computer to her phone and back again, pausing only to care for her sick toddler.

She and others are concerned about the economic impact on Mississippi County -- and are even more worried about the unforeseen consequences if all doesn't go according to plan and water inundates the nearby Missouri towns of New Madrid, Charleston, Wyatt and East Prairie.

Residents are being told a second levee built to protect the towns will hold, but "they really have no clue what's going to happen," Jones said.

In East Prairie, Cassie Sutton isn't waiting around to find out. Her family's bags are packed, she said Sunday, and when word is given that the levee will be blown up, they plan to head to stay with relatives about 45 minutes away.

"They did say the secondary levee will hold, but we've also never been in times like these," she said. "... I'm not willing to be the guinea pig. That's the bottom line."

The plan calls for engineers to use explosives to breach the Birds Point-New Madrid levee, flooding 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland that has been designated as a flood plain. About 90 families who live in the area have already been evacuated, Missouri officials have said.

Illinois and Missouri have called out hundreds of National Guard soldiers to help evacuate communities and protect vacated communities.

"It's like we have to sit around and wait, and that really, really terrifies me," Jones said. She said Dexter is on a hill and not in a flood plain, but is worried about the blast triggering a possible earthquake on the New Madrid Fault, which runs through the region. "The flood might not get me, but the earthquake will," she said.

Both Jones and Sutton are closely monitoring the joint information center's Facebook page, set up to disseminate information on the issue.

But Jones said she is afraid people aren't getting the whole story. "My family lives within a couple of miles of the levee. They've not been told to evacuate ... the news around here, nobody's reporting anything. They're not telling people what could happen."

She said even if the worst-case scenario doesn't take place, people should be made aware of the possibilities.

Sutton said she believes the Joint Information Center "has been really good. I'm very grateful for that." But, she pointed out, "they just don't know" what might happen.

With more rain forecast and the deterioration of the levee, Cairo Mayor Judson Childs ordered his 2,800 residents to evacuate by midnight Saturday.

"I'm here to try to protect the city of Cairo," Childs said. "I care about them and I don't want them in harm's way. I would much rather issue a mandatory evacuation and nothing happen than not to do it and people lose their life."

Sutton said her aunt and uncle have evacuated two homes near the levee, moving out all their possessions, and are now living in a camper. "They honestly think they'll have nothing to go back to," she said, adding the Corps of Engineers has told them the water will cover their home by at least 5 or 6 feet.

They also don't know whether they will be compensated for their losses, she said, as insurance likely will not cover a "man-made disaster" such as the intentional levee breach.

Asked about the issue on Facebook Sunday, the Joint Information Center said, "We are looking at all avenues of relief and assistance with other federal and state agencies. Right now, the priority is the safety of the public and the integrity of the entire system."

Jones posted on her Facebook page a transcript of a 1988 public meeting in which it was discussed that such a plan could go awry, as the force of the water would be uncontrollable after such a breach and the second levee cannot be guaranteed.

"As we all know too well, plans don't always go according to plan, especially when Old Man River is involved," board member Lester Goodin said, according to the transcript. "It has time after time fooled people who weren't fools, people who merely miscalculated, or failed to take into account its almost infinite variables, or used inadequate models, or out-of-date models, or mistaken assumptions."

"There's a lot of questions that people are asking that they're not answering," Jones said.

Engineers have reported sand boils and seepage at a number of levees near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, a condition that Walsh said also threatens the integrity of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project -- the world's largest flood control project.

"There is water in places where we have never ever seen it before," Walsh said.

The levee was breached before, in 1937. But, Jones and Sutton pointed out, the area was heavily forested then, with trees to slow the water before it reached the second levee. That forestation is no longer there, they said. In addition, Sutton said, the explosives used are likely much more powerful today.

Engineers have warned that should the rising waters of the Mississippi River overwhelm the entire flood control project, it could deluge cities, destroy crops, destroy businesses and paralyze river transportation.

Meanwhile, Missouri residents are concerned about the economic impact on the farms and the immediate area. Jones said she believes the farmland will be rendered useless, as the flooding will deposit sand and remove the top few layers of soil.

"The flooding would leave a layer of silt on the farmland that could take as much as a generation to clear, causing significant injury to the quality of the farmland for many years," Koster's office said last week. "In addition, there are approximately 100 homes in the flood area."

Sutton said her family has traditionally made its living farming, but "when it comes over people's lives to farmland, I say save the lives."

"They say it's going to help Cairo, then I'm for it," she said. "But I have a feeling that will destroy Mississippi County, financially bankrupt our county," where the main source of income is farming.

"It's going to be a sad, horrible thing to watch," she said.

CNN's Bill Mears and Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.