Saturday, April 30, 2011
When the Levee Breaks
Cairo (pronounced CARE-o, alt Chicago mocking pron. KAY-row) is the southernmost town in Illinois. If you're aware of the term "spit of land" it applies to Cairo. It sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and is surrounded by levees.
When river travel was the way to go, Cairo was a hopping little town. Twain mentions it in Huck Finn, and in fact Cairo was the intended original destination for Jim and Huck as they fled up the Ohio.
It is the home of Fort Defiance, which was commanded by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War and was an important supply station for Union troops during the war. As the 20th century arrived, the town was doing well economically and the population reached over 15,000.
But there were issues in Cairo, racial issues, that stretched from the beginning of the century til the end.
Many in that part of Illinois were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and supported segregation into the new century. There were lynchings, like that of Will James in 1909. And 60 years later, the racial tension and threat of violence was such that the National Guard was called into Cairo. A civil rights group called Cairo United Front led a boycott of white-owned businesses in Cairo that crippled the local economy, and it has yet to recover.
Currently, Cairo is the home to under 3,000 residents. Unemployment is high, more than half the children under 18 are living below the poverty level, and crime is a problem due to a reduced police budget. The town, despite being listed all over the National Historic Register, has become run-down. Buildings, abandoned years ago, have trees growing in them. Homes are boarded up. Businesses same. Very depressed, and sad.
The levees around Cairo rise 64 feet, which is roughly 4 feet higher than the current level of the Mississippi. The Army Corp of Engineers were brought in to inspect the levees, and they're reporting that despite the 4 feet of leeway the levees are "bubbling up" , indicating that they're failing from within.
Last week, plans were put in place to blow a hole in the levee down-river a bit, and allow approximately 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland to be flooded. The State of Missouri has been tying the move up in court for the last few days while the citizens of Cairo have busied themselves by sandbagging. In some cases, the water is lapping at their front porches. Front lawns submerged.
Earlier today, a judge gave the Army to OK to proceed, and Missouri's Attorney General, Chris Koster, said he's going to take his case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
That may be, but the Army's plan is to blow the thing...maybe as I type this. The National Weather Service says that the crested river (assumin' no more rain and the creek don't rise) should begin to recede by Tuesday, while the Army is concerned that the levees can't stand 3 days of max-pressure like that.
Kentucky, Tennessee, and Illinois are in favor of the levee blast, and the flooding of 130,000 acres of prime Missouri farmland. Things are getting very tense down there folks.
On Wednesday, Missouri's Republican House Speaker Steve Tilley said that he'd rather see Cairo washed away than see a flood of his state's farmland. Tilley said "Have you been to Cairo? Okay, then you know what I'm sayin' then." He subsequently apologized for his insensitive remarks.
Cairo's Mayor, Judson Childs helped ease the tension by saying that if the levee isn't blown, Cairo,IL will become "the next 9th Ward of New Orleans."
Don't it make you feel bad
When you're tryin' to find your way home,
You don't know which way to go?
If you're goin' down South
They go no work to do,
If you don't know about Chicago.
Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,
Now, cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.
All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
Thinkin' about me baby and my happy home.
Going, going to Chicago... Going to Chicago... Sorry but I can't take you...
Going down... going down now... going down....