Something is happening that could affect the future of Cairo forever.
I’m not referring to the capital of Egypt whose Tahrir Square became the center of popular protests this past January. Cairo, Illinois is a town of 3,000 that sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in southern Illinois. Last Monday, USA Today reports, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted an earthen levee on the Mississippi River to divert floodwaters to farmland in Missouri and save Cairo from flooding.
The Mississippi crested at 61.25 feet — a record height, exceeding the previous 1937 record by two feet — as it passed Cairo. The decision to flood the Missouri fields was fraught with conflict: The state of Missouri, farmers and landowners, fearing that floodwaters could damage their property, crops and livelihoods, fought the decision to destroy the levee. But last Sunday, the U.S. Supreme Court itself refused to intervene.
Rain in “extreme amounts” coupled with a “stagnant, persistent weather pattern” has caused the Mississippi to swell to an unprecedented volume. According to St. Louis Today, more and more residents of Memphis are being advised to leave their homes in anticipation of the rising river, with officers going door to door. Water is already pooling at the base of Beale Street, the home of the blues.
The river is expected to crest on Tuesday. So far, there has been no catastrophic flooding in Kentucky and northwest Tennessee but residents downriver in Mississippi and Arkansas are making preparations. As the New York Times reports, around May 22, the river is projected to be several feet above the record-setting level it reached in 1927, when it “broke its banks, flooded 27,000 square miles, killed hundreds and displaced thousands:”
Unlike in the 1927 flood, the levees along the Mississippi are not causing the greatest concern, officials and river watchers say. The anxiety is in the backwater, the tributaries that are carrying water from the heavy rains down to the Mississippi. The river is not only too high to take any more water, but is also pushing its own water up into the tributaries — and wherever else it can go.
That is what has happened in Arkansas, where the White River, fattened from weeks of heavy rains, has forced the evacuation of towns along its course and the closing a stretch of busy Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis.
Meanwhile, those in the lower Mississippi Delta have been watching uneasily, as, in the phrasing of Gov. Haley Barbour, the pig comes down the python.
Only one of the 18 casinos along the river in Mississippi will still be open early next week. Shelters have been opening evacuations, and Barbour “himself spent last weekend taking the furniture out of his lake house, which he estimated would take in 10 feet of water.” The possibility of heavy rains adds to concerns about the rising floodwaters.
Looking at images of Missouri farmlands under water in the New York Times, I’ve been thinking about the devastating flood of 1993, when the Mississippi rose up and, like some river god from Greek mythology, reminded us all of its power. A friend from Fargo gave me regular, tearful updates of the inundation of her parents’ house and her mother’s telling her not to come home as there was nothing she could do. Soon after, my husband Jim Fisher started teaching at Saint Louis University and, in numerous rides up and down the Mississippi, (to Hannibal and, on the Illinois side, Prairie du Rocher and Elsah and Alton and Brussels), we could still see traces of the devastation wrought by 1993′s Great Flood.
As George C. Grugett, the executive vice president of the Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association near Memphis, says in the New York Times:
“People don’t understand how mighty this old Mississippi is and how much damage it can do when it goes on a rampage like this.”
Photo of a Coast Guard reservist wading out into a water-covered driveway in Missouri by USACEpublicaffairs