It's high drama along the Mississippi River these days -- as the river reached near record levels last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made the difficult decision to blow up a levee and flood acres of Missouri farmland in order to save the town of Cairo, Illinois.
We had a chance to drive down to tip of the Missouri Bootheel this weekend, dropping into tiny Campbell, Missouri, which is practically in Arkansas. After making our way across state highways that had been closed due to flooding, we were able survey the peach trees (mighty fine!) before crossing into Illinois and, following the swollen river, make our way up Highway 3 back toward St. Louis.
And of course we stopped in Cairo.
At the time of our visit, the town was eerily quiet. As Daily RFT's Chad Garrison has detailed previously in this blog, Cairo's population has taken a major hit in recent decades, and the once-bustling city would probably look a bit empty even if its entire population of 2,831 was in residence.
But on Saturday, it was even more empty than usual: The town had been evacuated, and we didn't see a soul other than state troopers, a few Cairo police officers and workers using a backhoe to shore up the rocks around the railroad tracks. The river at the edge of town was lapping at the rows of sandbags along its banks, but it seemed clear that (thanks to the Army Corps and the blown levee) the biggest threat to this town was in the rearview mirror.
Everything in Cairo that day was calm. There were plenty of extra bags on call, should the river continue to rise -- we saw whole piles waiting for action in front of the auto parts store.
All in all, it seemed clear that the threat of crisis had passed and things would be A-OK in Cairo.
Not so the acres of Missouri farmland we glimpsed on our way to Campbell. They'd been flooded to save the town, and in parts, water had risen high enough to close the surrounding state highway. An entire season of crops has been destroyed; damage has been estimated at $100 million. Farmers have filed a class action suit against the Army Corps of Engineers, saying it will be years before their soil can recover from the tsunami of water that hit it.
Outside Cairo proper, too, we saw plenty of homes underwater, and fields covered in water so deep that you could hear the wind whistling across the surface. It was beautiful and very sad at the same time.
It was a sobering trip, made all the more serious by the fact that what Illinois and Missouri have experienced lately isn't even the worst of it. In Memphis, the river has crested to 48 feet, and flooding is only expected to get worse.