By ADRIAN SAINZ
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -- A final decision on a plan to intentionally punch a massive hole in a levee to protect an upstream Illinois town from the rising Mississippi River was tabled on Tuesday as officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrestled with the potential impacts on valuable Missouri farmland.
Corps officials met privately in a teleconference for about 90 minutes Tuesday. Afterward, corps spokesman Jim Pogue said from his Memphis, Tenn., office that the agency had decided to push a final decision off to at least later this week because it was still assessing the situation. The corps plans to meet again Wednesday.
The corps is considering intentionally breaking the levee at Birds Point in Mississippi County, Mo., in order to relieve upstream pressure on a different levee protecting the Illinois town of Cairo, but government leaders in Missouri have objected over fears the raging water would overrun prime farmland.
An option being explored by the corps is the use of explosives to blow a 2-mile-wide hole through the levee, which would take a significant amount of water out of the river and relieve the Cairo levee where pressure from the Mississippi River is increasing after days of heavy rains.
Though the corps backed away from a final decision, it nonetheless announced it was still moving equipment needed to execute the break to the general area of the levee.
Missouri government leaders have objected to any plan that would compromise the levee. The state's attorney general, Chris Koster, sued the corps earlier Tuesday to stop the demolition, arguing the levee's destruction would flood up to 130,000 acres of land -- an area stretching 30 miles north to south and as much as 8 to 10 miles wide at certain points.
Floodwaters would leave a layer of silt on farmland that could take a generation to clear and also could damage 100 homes, Koster said.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has also spoken out. During an unrelated bill signing event in Kansas City, Nixon told reporters Tuesday he was concerned the corps is "trying to solve the entire watershed pressure on the back of Missouri farmers and Missouri communities" and should instead explore other methods of relieving pressure on the levees.
"The levees were built to withstand floods, and so far there has not been a single levee on the Mississippi River in our state that has been overtopped, and they've remained strong," Nixon said.
Cairo mayor Judson Childs issued a city-wide plea to evacuate the town of about 2,800 people Tuesday, and by evening about 100 people had moved to temporary shelters. He endorsed the corps' proposal, asking: "What is most important, farmland or 3,000 lives? Do they want it to be like the ninth ward in New Orleans?"
"I'm putting lives ahead of property. I care about the farmland. You can put a price on farmland but you can't put a price on lives. That's a no-brainer."
Pogue said the corps would monitor river levels in the area and intentionally break the levee if it became convinced that the rising water would overtop the levee for a significant amount of time or break it. Much of the decision to breach the levee with explosives, he said, hinges on whether the levee is apparently going to break on its own.
Pogue said an intentional break of the levee would allow the corps to control the situation.
"We understand the gravity of what we may have to do," Pogue said. "No one takes that responsibility lightly. We don't want to operate the floodway, but by the same token, if we have to do that, that's what we need to do. It's sort of a lesser evil."
Pogue said the equipment was being sent on barges accompanied by a towboat. He would not be specific about the equipment except to say there would be explosives.
If a decision is made to breach the levee, Pogue said, the tiny town of Pinhook, with a population of about 50 people, will have to be evacuated.
Farmers in the area are worried. Terry Hequembourg, 75, of Charleston, Mo., said his family has farmed about 1,000 acres in Mississippi County since 1935, and most of his land, including a few hundred acres of corn, would be inundated if the corps breaks the levee. He said he hoped the corps would find another option.
Hequembourg said he has been following the news about the levee "as close" as he can and that his family has already moved much its equipment out of the area in hopes of saving it. An expensive pivot irrigation system, however, would likely be lost, he said.
"I just don't know what the consequences will be," he said. "It's just frightening that something like this might happen."
AP reporter Maria Sudekum Fisher in Kansas City, Mo., David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo., and Jim Suhr in Cairo, Ill., contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.