The planned explosions this week to ease the Mississippi River flooding threatening the town of Cairo, Ill., appear to have succeeded - but their effects on the farmland, where wheat, corn and soybeans are grown - could take months or even years to become clear. The Missouri Farm Bureau said the damage will likely exceed $100 million for this year alone.
"Where the breach is, water just roars through and scours the ground. It's like pouring water in a sand pile. There is that deep crevice that's created," said John Hawkins, a spokesman for the Illinois Farm Bureau. "For some farmers, it could take a generation to recoup that area."
The issue is vital to farmers and the state of Missouri, whose attorney general repeatedly tried to block the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plan to break the levee. Opponents of the move argued it would leave the farmland buried under feet of sand and silt, rendering it useless for years.
It's still not clear how much damage the intentional flooding will cause and how farmers will be compensated for losses to the land and roughly 100 houses scattered through the area. Experts said the extent of the damage can't be accurately assessed until the floodwaters recede, and that likely will take months.
"It would be more toward the end of summer, early fall," said Maj. General Michael Walsh, the corps' commander and division engineer who made the final call to detonate the levee.
The river level itself is going to have to fall from its high flood stage before the water covering the fields can even begin to drain, said Jim Pogue, a corps spokesman. That could take a significant amount of time, he said.
"This is the greatest flood we've seen since 1937, we're tying records, breaking records, all down the river," Pogue said. "This is likely to be once-in-a-lifetime event."
After the first explosions Monday, rooftops could be spotted in the distance through binoculars. Tree limbs floating in the murky brown water and a few scattered cows left behind stood grazing on the sloping levee. As the swelling Mississippi flowed downriver, it was still too early to tell what the effect might be on farms further south.
Rick Cruse, an agronomy professor at Iowa State University and director of the university's Iowa Water Center, said farmers near the levees will find their topsoil has been washed away, and those farther away will have to deal with debris that has washed onto their land. Pollutants and chemicals in the water is another concern, but that threat is largely eased by the sheer volume of water that diluted those substances.