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Officials weigh options as Mississippi floodwaters head south

In this aerial photo, the Mississippi River spills out of its banks, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, near Ste. Genevieve, Mo.  (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
In this aerial photo, the Mississippi River spills out of its banks, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, near Ste. Genevieve, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

(Bloomberg) -- As floodwaters move south along the Mississippi River, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is weighing steps it could take to prevent widespread flooding from southern Missouri down to the Gulf Coast.

In Louisiana, the Corps and local levee districts are inspecting the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. The Corps could open the Bonnet Carre Spillway, diverting up to 250,000 cubic feet per second of water into Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans, spokesman Bob Anderson said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday.

Heavy December rains across the Midwest created the region’s worst flooding since 2011, deluging communities, forcing the closing of pipelines, terminals and grain elevators and killing at least 30 people, according to state emergency officials in Missouri, Illinois and Oklahoma.

The Coast Guard already had high-water safety advisories in place for much of the Mississippi River south of Chester, Illinois. On Tuesday, it added one for a 21-mile (34 kilometer) stretch near Baton Rouge, Louisiana There are also towing limitations in effect near Morgan City, Louisiana, for vessels heading south that are 600 feet (183 meters) or shorter.

River cresting

The Mississippi was cresting Tuesday in Caruthersville, Missouri, reaching 42.6 feet. That’s above the 32 feet that qualifies as flood stage there, but below the record set in 2011 of 47.61 feet, the National Weather Service said. The river is forecast to crest in Memphis, Tennessee, on Friday at 40.5 feet, below the 1937 record of 48.7 feet.

“We’re at the highest levels we’ve ever had for the time of year, but the levels we’re getting have been reached and exceeded several times in the past,” said Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, an arm of the National Weather Service, in Slidell, Louisiana.

Fifty miles of the Illinois River remain closed and another 50-mile stretch is open with restrictions, the Coast Guard said. CME Group Inc. declared force majeure at U.S. soybean shipping stations, all of which are located on the Illinois River. The declaration is effective until further notice, protecting the shippers from liability for contracts that go unfulfilled for reasons beyond their control.

Section reopened

South of St. Louis, which was ravaged by flooding last week, the Coast Guard has reopened the 76-mile stretch of the Mississippi between Chester, Illinois, and Billings Landing, Missouri, it said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Memphis District said it would stop preparing to operate the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway because of lower crest levels and forecasts for the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois.

“It doesn’t mean we’re completely out of the woods,” Colonel Jeff Anderson, commander of the Memphis District, said. “There’s still a lot of water in the system that’s making its way to the Gulf of Mexico and we must be prepared for future rain events within the massive Mississippi River drainage basin.”

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