When the Levee Breaks

The speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives was asked which he’d rather see flooded: Cairo, Ill., or thousands of acres of Missouri farmland. 

“Cairo,” he said, smirking. “I’ve been there. Trust me, Cairo?”

Then he asked a reporter, “Have you ever been to Cairo? OK You know what I’m saying, then.”

The question was formally answered on Friday when a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can blow up a dam that will relieve flooding around Cairo by diverting water into Missouri. So Cairo is saved.

I’ve been to Cairo. I know what the Missouri speaker was saying. More than Detroit, more than Buffalo, more than Gary, Cairo is America’s most extreme example of a town that’s outlived its original purpose, and is rotting away. Its location at the meeting of the continent’s two most important rivers became meaningless once railroads and highways replaced water as the quickest way to haul freight. A Southern town in a Northern part of the country, it was crippled even further by a 1969 race riot, which resulted in a 10-year boycott that drove away almost all the white businesses. From a peak of 15,000 people, Cairo has dwindled to 2,800.

Now, Washington Avenue is bordered by blocks and blocks of Roaring ’20s storefronts with empty, dusty windows. A wrought iron arch marks off a historic district. Beyond was the Gem Theater, whose doors were covered with plywood, which in turn was covered in graffiti. A few Victorian buildings remain -- the Custom House, the Riverlore Mansion -- the architecture still in style during Cairo’s heyday.

On my last visit, a year ago, I found only two businesses open after dark. The first was Ace of Cups, a coffee shop run by idealistic punk rockers looking for a small town to save. (They’ve since given up.) The other was the Belvedere Motel, run by Indians who flew halfway around the world to make their fortune at the end of Illinois. The proprietress showed me a room with a hole kicked in the wall, then demanded $40 in cash.

I decided to stay in the motel outside the levee, the 64-foot earthworks that protects Cairo from its defining rivers. In fact, to get in and out of Cairo, you drive under a viaduct with a portcullis than can be lowered to cut off Cairo entirely from the rising waters, to transform it into an island.

The Missouri speaker’s remarks have been called particularly insensitive because most of Cairo’s residents are poor blacks, who are always the last to leave obsolescent cities. Hundreds have already been evacuated. Gov. Pat Quinn helicoptered over the floodwaters, and Attorney General Lisa Madigan argued in court for blowing up the dam.

Cairo is built on water, not land. No one would build a city there today. It would be a nature preserve. There may be a time to debate whether people should still be living on a peninsula between the Ohio and the Mississippi, but not while Cairo is about to be washed away.

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