Cairo's pulse slows, but only slightly, as flood threat eases
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
CAIRO, Ill. • At a shelter for flood victims Tuesday evening, refugees were stunned by news footage of a Missouri farmer comparing the damage that resulted from the destruction of a levee with the loss of a child.
"The crops? What about us? What are we supposed to do?" yelled William Reese, 55, sitting in a gymnasium at Shawnee Community College in Ullin, near Cairo. Reese was among dozens of other people who had fled homes in Cairo.
"You can always get farmland, but you can't replace human lives. They did the right thing by blowing that levee."
After days of public outcry and debate about saving fertile Missouri farmland or this impoverished city of 3,000 people at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the Army Corps of Engineers blew a large hole in the Birds Point Levee late Monday night.
Many residents of Cairo, which calls itself the "Gateway to the South," expressed a mix of relief and anger over the blast. They seem to have dodged a bullet so far, but they feel as if their worth has been called into question.
"These persons in Missouri aren't the only ones impacted by this," said Tyrone Coleman, a day into his new post as mayor. "As a fellow human being, my concern is for all people."
He snapped his fingers showing how close Cairo came to being inundated. Water rose to near the top of the flood wall that shields the city from the bloated Ohio River. Since the levee was destroyed downstream, the water level dropped off from the crest of over 61 feet. At 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Ohio River was at 60 feet at Cairo.
"There is some comfort there because it released the water stress," said Coleman.
A mandatory evacuation of the city remained in effect Tuesday, but about 100 people never left and a few others trickled back to their homes despite warnings that there was still danger. Large sink holes formed on a main street, and sand boils have popped up, including a big one about 500 feet from the flood wall.
"People want to get back in," said Bo Purchase, 63, a city councilman working to unplug street drains. "They don't have the money to stay in hotels, and a lot of them don't want to be in shelters."
He helped put a ladder beside a two-story house in one neighborhood so people such as George Johnson, 68, a disabled veteran, could climb to the top in an emergency.
"I can swim. I have a boat over there," said Johnson, too stubborn to leave. "Times are so hard you can't find a nickel to buy a pop."
Danny Brown, 51, a former police officer, also stayed put. He pumped water out of his flooded basement. At night, he said, he patrolled the street with a spotlight and a German shepherd named Precious.
"Somebody has to stay back and be responsible," he said.
As the water dropped, the flood wall was a popular point of inspection Tuesday. Bill Magnus, 52, a mechanic who works on towboats, did his own measurements at the waterfront and was skeptical about how much the flood risk had eased.
"They said it was going go drop 3 or 4 feet," he said late in the afternoon. "Well, it hasn't dropped that much."
But farther along the wall, a group from the Illinois Conservation Police studied the water level. Officer Mike Thompson put his ear to a metal section of the wall to listen to water passing on the other side. On a typical day, there is a cut in the wall for a public boat ramp leading down to the water.
"It's definitely helping," Thompson said of the destroyed Birds Point Levee, adding that the Cairo flood wall wasn't built to be a permanent hold against high water. "Any pressure reduction off the wall is going to be a good thing."
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