River rises; more people evacuated

Friday, March 21, 2008
KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com The swollen Mississippi River, facing south, from atop the closed Broadway flood gate in downtown Cape Girardeau.

The aftermath of this week's record-setting rains was still being felt locally Thursday, as river levels rose and rescues and evacuations continued.

Thursday morning a federal disaster was declared in 70 Missouri counties following a request made Wednesday by Gov. Matt Blunt.

The floodgate at Broadway and the gate on Main Street were closed Thursday to keep the rising Mississippi River out of downtown Cape Girardeau. Burlington-Northern Santa Fe railroad was forced to shut down traffic from Memphis, Tenn., to St. Louis because of the high river levels encroaching on and, in some places, washing out sections of the company's tracks.

The rising Mississippi River also forced closure of some state roads in low-lying areas near the river, MoDOT reported.

In places like Allenville, Dutchtown and Delta in southern Cape Girardeau County, evacuations continued into Thursday, Cape Girardeau County emergency operations spokesman Eric McGowen said, but by midafternoon the State Emergency Management Agency was reporting the evacuations of Allenville and Dutchtown complete.

In Bollinger County, Presiding Commissioner Wayne Johnson said the damage is still being evaluated, but he estimated "75 percent of the county's roads and numerous bridges were damaged."

Vince Schreckenberg, supervisor of Bollinger County's road and bridge department, said his crews rebuilt five roads Wednesday but found 20 more impassable. He expects to add roads to the list.

KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com Brock Hanners, right, and Mark Kight arranged sandbags around Kight's mother's home Thursday, March 20, 2008, in Commerce, Mo. Peggy Kight has had to leave her home three times due to floods in the 30 years that she has lived in the lowland along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri.

"Right now, all I can do is keep a daily log of every piece of equipment and every man," he said.

Water and debris still covers some roads and most gravel is gone. In Zalma, people who have been unable to get to work since Tuesday have shifted their attention to helping with cleanup efforts.

The American Red Cross closed shelters in Marble Hill, Jackson and Zalma on Thursday, citing consolidation of shelter operations, but shelters in Delta and Piedmont remained open.

Wednesday night 145 people registered in five shelters in Zalma, Delta, Marble Hill, Piedmont and Jackson, the Red Cross reported. Of those, 92 people stayed overnight.

Early Thursday morning, U.S. Coast Guard crews exchanged their Disaster Assistance Response Team flood boats, designed for shallow water, for swift-water vessels meant to cut through faster and more dangerous currents, given the rising river problem, Winkler said.

Cape Girardeau County is dealing with an estimated 200 homes and 13 businesses that needed evacuation, said Dick Knaup, director of emergency management for the county.

More than 50 county roads were severely affected by the flood, suffering either washouts or losing culverts, Knaup said.

The full effects of the flood probably won't be calculated until next week, said Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who was touring the area with SEMA officials Thursday. Federal assistance is crucial at this point, Kinder said.

"That's why we moved so fast," he said.

Because there were deaths involved, SEMA coordinator Mark Winkler expects the "gravity of the situation" will expedite the request for federal assistance.

The National Guard was mobilized in some of the more rural areas of Missouri, Kinder said.

SEMA officials are "on the ground all over the state working around the clock to coordinate flood relief efforts."

The levee that protected the Caney Basin in northern Scott County that broke Wednesday was stabilized, as volunteers and emergency personnel worked into Thursday placing sandbags on the levee.

Most of the damage to the Caney Basin area was confined to farm fields, Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter said. The damage could have been worse without the help of dozens of volunteers who sandbagged the levee, he said.

But as the levee protecting the Caney Basin was stabilizing, floodwaters from the rising Mississippi were threatening Commerce, the Scott County Sheriff's Department reported.

Sandbags were placed around a home in Commerce, and the sheriff's department reported the sandbagging complete by nightfall.

Most areas affected by flooding Thursday and into today are agricultural areas or, in the case of Cape Girardeau's Red Star district, areas where past floods have resulted in buyouts of residential property.

Southern Illinois, especially Union County, struggled through the day with flooding as well. There the story Wednesday was much the same as in Southeast Missouri: failing levees wreaking havoc on homes and fields.

The Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau is still expected to crest at 44.5 feet Sunday despite levels being lower than expected north of the region.

"The Kaskaskia, Big Muddy and Meramec rivers all three are swollen right now and are large contributors to the lower river," said Nicole Dalrymple, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "We recommend folks keep an eye on the forecast."

At 8 p.m. in Cape Girardeau, the river level was 39.45 feet. Recreational boaters are being restricted in the St. Louis metro area but not farther south.

Dalrymple said the Coast Guard posted an advisory for all boats to be cautious of debris in the river and to be vigilant, especially around bridges.

Dan Overbey, director of the Southeast Missouri Port Authority, said at this time he doesn't expect the river levels to impede commerce at the port. However, at the river's predicted crest level coming Sunday, the Girardeau Stevedores shipping company might be affected. Water could come over the Stevedores dock, Overbey said. That would halt operations, but the disruption might occur over the weekend.

The SEMO Port's railroad spur between the port and Cape Girardeau went underwater Thursday, causing traffic to halt on the line, Overbey said.

Members of the Corps of Engineers are focused on Kaskaskia Island, Ill., and Southern Illinois, providing technical assistance. "Levees on that side of the river are in most cases agricultural, which offer a lower level of flood protection," Dalrymple said.

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