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Massive flooding extends across American South, Midwest

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Breached levee and downriver disaster
  • NEW: The Corps of Engineers will not open final breach on Wednesday night
  • Water from the Mississippi floods hundreds of square miles of Missouri farmland
  • The breach of a levee on the Mississippi River helped to ease flood pressure

See more coverage from CNN affilate KPLR.

(CNN) -- The Mississippi river spilled out across huge swaths of farmland in the American South and Midwest on Wednesday, creating massive flooding from Minnesota to Louisiana.

Heavy rains spawned flooding that meteorologists say is not expected to fully relent until early June. Areas along the Ohio River Basin also experienced heavy flooding as residents evacuated low-lying areas across the region.

After intending to open the final crevasse, or break, in the Birds Point-New Madrid levee Wednesday night, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said logistical difficulties prevented the operation from going forward as planned.

Earlier, the Corps intentionally breached the levee on the Mississippi River, helping ease unprecedented flood pressure on other areas.

The Ohio River level at Cairo, Illinois, has dropped nearly 2 feet since Monday afternoon, before the blast. Officials said they believe the river levels would be up to 3 feet higher now if the levee had not been detonated.

The breach, created when engineers detonated explosives late Monday night at Birds Point, Missouri, is sending 396,000 cubic feet per second of water onto 200 square miles of fertile Missouri farmland.

CNN's Rob Marciano talked to U.S.Geological Survey personnel patrolling the water south of the breach. They explained that they were using an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler, which used GPS technology to measure the velocity of the water from the riverbed to the crest. This helps them determine how many cubic feet per second of water flows through the levee breach.

Flooded lake overflows levee

The water is coursing across a floodway that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon described as "literally the most productive part of our continent."

Farmer Bryan Feezor said the sight makes you "sick to your stomach" as he surveyed his submerged fields.

"Farming is all I ever have done ... and it's under water," he told CNN affiliate KPLR. "I really don't know (what I'm going to do)."

But retired Missouri farmer Norbert Rolwing had this comment for Marciano: "Some of 'em are farming a lot of acres and they've just been lucky the last few years that they haven't had a flood. This is one of the things that happens once in a great while. They just have to take it on the chin."

While the plan to breach the levee appeared to be working -- the level of the Ohio River fell where it joins the Mississippi -- record crests and relentless pressure from millions of gallons of water still threatened communities throughout the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys.

Vicksburg, Mississippi, could see water levels rise 4 feet by Sunday. Authorities told residents of Caruthersville, Missouri, that sandbags may not be enough to control the water.

But that didn't stop people living up and down the river from working frantically to protect their homes and land.

In Des Arc, Arkansas, townspeople worked together to make sandbags, using the impromptu rigging of a ladder and upside-down traffic cone to funnel shovelfuls of sand into their bags. In Louisiana's Jefferson parish, workers shored up levees and roads in a drizzling rain, ahead of the expected deluge.

Corina Jolley, of Sikeston, Missouri, told CNN she grew up in Dorena, Missouri, which she said was being inundated by the breach on the Mississippi River.

A tombstone rests above the remains of her father and uncle, but "I'm sure we'll never see it again," said Jolley, who claims residents of the rich farmland will be out of luck, as opposed to those in Cairo, Illinois, for whom the risk has been lessened by the breaches.

"Whoever thought it would be this bad?" she said.

The sacrifice that these people are making is for the greater good.
--Jim Pogue, Army Corps of Engineers, speaking to CNN affiliate KPLR about people in Missouri farmland flooded by the intentional breach of a levee on the Mississippi River
  • Floods

The situation was especially perilous for a 93-year-old woman who was caught in the swollen waters of the Black River near Poplar Bluff, where two members of the Missouri National Guard rescued her from a partially submerged car.

"We weren't there to be heroes," said Sgt. Tim Bridges. "We were just doing our jobs."

Bridges, along with Spc. Junior Bombard, waded through the rushing, muddy waters to ferry the woman to safety.

This "is the reason why I signed up for the Guard," said Spc. Junior Bombard.

The town of Cairo remained under a mandatory evacuation despite the intentional breach, while six other communities were under voluntary evacuation notices, said Patti Thompson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

Illinois state Sen. Mark Kirk, on an aerial tour of Pulaski, Massac and Alexander counties in southern Illinois, made a stop in Cairo Wednesday. Grim-faced, Kirk examined giant sinkholes that have opened in the town's industrial district, as the river water gushed up through beds of sand.

But it's possible that Cairo residents could begin returning to their homes by the beginning of next week, according to Patti Thompson, the Communications Manager for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

But by Wednesday, the muddy Ohio River had swamped towns along the Ohio, such as Metropolis, Illinois. Reddish-brown water covered government buildings and tourist attractions alike.

The water looked cleaner in the southern Indiana town of Palmyra, but it was just as destructive. Small waves lapped gently at houses, streets signs and apartment buildings. Kate Gallow spoke with CNN affiliate WAVE about the flooding. "it's been really quick," she said. "it's been really quick and it won't stop."

Even with the levee breach, the National Weather Service continues to predict record or near-record flooding in parts of southern Illinois, southwest Indiana, western Kentucky and Tennessee, southeastern Missouri, northeastern Arkansas, and parts of Mississippi and Louisiana.

Arkansas police are searching for a man missing since he tried to drive through floodwater Tuesday morning. Carl Hess drove around barricades that blocked Highway 236, Sheriff Jim Roberson told CNN affiliate KATV. Hess called his wife at 7:19 a.m. (8:19 a.m. ET) and told her he was "in neck-deep water," Roberson said. Hess has not been seen since.

A host of rescue workers and volunteers searched the water along that section of highway, looking for the missing man. But the water was 3 feet to 5 feet deep along the road, Roberson said, and even deeper off the roadway.

"It's strong water and we certainly don't want to lose anyone else," Roberson said. "So we're being very careful where we go and what we do."

The decision to breach the Birds Point-New Madrid levee was controversial. Missouri officials took the Corps to court over the plan, questioning the agency's authority to intentionally breach the levee. The state argued the floodwater would deposit silt on about 130,000 acres, and it would take years, along with millions of dollars, to fix the damage.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Corps' Mississippi River Valley Division, made the decision to order the breach. He warned that without punching a hole in the levee, massive flooding would threaten to inundate communities throughout the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure on the system," he told reporters Tuesday evening. "The project operated as designed."

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case on Sunday, clearing the way for Walsh to blow the levee.

Some Missouri residents were angered by the decision, saying it would destroy their communities and provide questionable benefit. But others felt the decision was for the best.

"Yeah, we lost 135,000 acres of farm land here in Missouri," said Sikeston, Missouri, resident Patricia Mobely, who recently fled the drought and firestorms of Texas for what she thought would be a more peaceful life in the Midwest. "But how much more would we have lost if we hadn't done it?"

"The sacrifice that these people are making is for the greater good," Jim Pogue with the Army Corps of Engineers told KPLR. "Their sacrifices are going to benefit hundreds of thousands of people all through this region. It's not just Cairo. It's people all through this part of the country."

Walsh called the decision to inundate the farmland and about 100 homes "heart-wrenching."

"I've been involved with flooding for 10 years and it takes a long time to recover from something like this," he said.