The middle of an emergency is not the time to be devising major policies, but that’s what’s going on in a corner our state.

The middle of an emergency is not the time to be devising major policies, but that’s what’s going on in a corner our state.

So far, our area has been spared the worst of the high waters and deadly, heavy storms that have hit much of the U.S. this spring, but southern Missouri has been hammered by flooding.

There’s a particular issue in southeast Missouri. The Mississippi and Ohio rivers come together at Cairo, Ill. – not all that far from Cape Girardeau and Sikeston on the Missouri side – and below that point the Mississippi becomes wider and is able to handle lots of water. Right now, both rivers are flooding upstream from their confluence, and that is putting Cairo and its 2,800 residents in danger as the Mississippi keeps rising.

A plan for just this uncommon scenario has been in place for more than 80 years. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the Mississippi, can blow a levee on the Missouri side of the river. Water – lots of it – would spill into the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, lowering the Mississippi. The floodway is a 4- to 12-mile-wide area that runs 35 miles before the water would flow back into the Mississippi at a point where it’s angling to the west. This has only been done once, in the 1930s.

Of course, Missouri has a keen interest here, too. The area that would be flooded has 130,000 acres of cropland and about 100 homes, some of which have already been evacuated in advance of the plan possibly being put into effect this weekend. Whether than happens depends on two things: the river’s level at Cairo and the federal courts.

Missouri officials want a judge to order the Corps to spare the levee, and the state’s two U.S. senators and southeast Missouri’s congresswoman have jumped in, too. Illinois is fighting to let the Corps do as it sees fit, and the mayor of Cairo says his city is in danger of becoming another Lower Ninth Ward. Who’s to say if that’s really the case, but the reference to the area of New Orleans worst hit by Hurricane Katrina is chilling.

Assuming the water keeps rising, officials have a tough choice: damage in one state or the risk of worse damage in another. The Mississippi has done this before and will again. That’s why the government has these policies in place, to weigh options and costs ahead of a crisis and have an objective, agreed-upon plan. The Corps says Missouri last reviewed and signed off on this plan in 1986.

Jump ahead 25 years: Someday is here, and officials are running to court, asking a judge to throw out the plan. Perhaps that’s the best outcome, but it’s hardly the best way of getting there. When everything dries out, Missouri needs to take its concerns to the Corps – and be willing to stand up and say spending money on new alternatives is justified.