May 3 (Bloomberg) -- The Ohio River is at record heights even as it has begun to fall in Cairo, Illinois, and shipping in the area is drifting to a stop, according to federal officials.
The river reached a crest of 61.72 feet late yesterday, more than 2 feet above the previous record of 59.5 set in February 1937, according to the National Weather Service.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers yesterday blew up a levee downstream from Cairo, relieving pressure from the rising waters in the city where the Ohio joins the Mississippi, said David Humphrey, lead forecaster for the weather service in Paducah, Kentucky.
“We’re at near-historic levels all along the Ohio,” Humphrey said. “This is wet season. Spring flood happens every year, but not like this.”
In addition to damaging homes and businesses, floods can disrupt shipping by closing locks along rivers, delay planting in agricultural areas and kill livestock. In 2008 and 2009, flooding along the Mississippi and Red rivers caused billions of dollars in damage, killed thousands of stock animals and drove thousands of families from their homes.
Parts of the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers are currently closed to shipping because of safety concerns or because the locks and dams along the waterways have shut down, said U.S. Coast Guard Commander Doug Simpson.
“Nobody from the Cumberland and Tennessee basins can get to the Ohio River right now,” Simpson said.
Shipping has also been affected by the Corps of Engineers’ decision to blow up the Birds Point Levee, flooding about 130,000 acres of farmland and 100 homes in Missouri.
“In order to ensure the safety of vessels in the area we have the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio closed right now,” Simpson said.
Residents of Obion County in Tennessee were told to prepare to leave their homes if the rivers in the area continue to rise, according to the weather service. In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal declared an emergency last week in anticipation of the flood waters eventually reaching that far south.
The Mississippi in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is at 34.8 feet, just below the 35-foot mark considered flood stage by the weather service. It is expected to rise to at least 38 feet by the weekend, according to weather service forecasts.
Currently, 254 river gauges in the Midwest and U.S. Northeast are showing some flooding, according to the weather service.
The flood waters on the Ohio will enter the Mississippi, elevating flood risk. The Mississippi at New Madrid, Missouri, is at 46.54 feet and is expected to rise to a record of 50 feet later this week. The old record of 48 feet was set in 1937, according to the weather service.
Humphrey said while there is a threat of rain in the forecast for the next five days, heavy rainfall isn’t expected.
The 6- to 10-day outlook from Commodity Weather Group LLC calls for below-normal rain in the southern U.S., including the Mississippi River valley.
“These areas will be drier over the next 10 days, helping to ease the severity of flooding a bit for cotton, rice, soft wheat and corn in the region,” CWG said.
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