*A debate over how to stem possible flooding in Illinois and Missouri took a racist turn this week, as a leading Missouri politician made some controversial remarks about the fate of a predominantly-black Illinois town, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Massive rainfall has caused waters at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to run dangerously high, and the mayor of Cairo, Illinois, located at the confluence, has asked residents to evacuate the town.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering a plan to destroy a levee, which would lower the floodwaters by a few feet and help protect Cairo. But the state of Missouri has vigorously objected to the plan, because it would badly damage around 130,000 acres of farmland.

Missouri’s Republican House Speaker Steve Tilley was asked by reporters about the dilemma. “Would you rather have Missouri farmland flooded or Cairo underwater?” Tilley is asked.

Without hesitation, he replies, “Cairo. I’ve been there. Trust me. Cairo.”

As another reporter prepares to ask another question, Tilley goes on. “Have you been to Cairo? OK, then you know what I’m saying then.”

Cairo, Illinois (pronounced KAY-roh) was at the turn of the 20th century a bustling trade center. The 2,800-person town is now largely abandoned, two-thirds African-American, and deeply impoverished: nearly 50 percent of children under the age of 18 in Cairo live below the poverty level.

Many criticized the Speaker for what they described as insensitivity in the remarks. The Capitol Fax, which posted the video of Tilley’s remarks, also has a press release from Illinois State Senator Gary Forby:

During a time when people are being asked to evacuate their homes and leave behind their belongings, it absolutely blows my mind that that type of dialogue is being thrown around by the Missouri Speaker. Not only is it in poor taste, but it absolutely disgusting that Speaker Tilley would joke about putting the lives of Cairo residents at risk by choosing farmland over a community.

The St. Louis Beacon notes that the Speaker has since issued an apology:

“I was asked a question about blowing up a dam in Missouri and the negative consequences that happened to Missouri,” Tilley said. “As the speaker of the House, (I believe) my first responsibility is to Missourians. And in my effort to defend them, I went on to say some pretty insensitive and inappropriate remarks about Cairo.”