Missouri continues flood fight; Mississippi, Meramec still rising

Friday, March 21, 2008

DUTCHTOWN, Mo. (AP) -- Horace Hitt was busy Friday cleaning his farm shed just a few feet from lapping brown water that covered his family's 120-acre farm in southeast Missouri. The 73-year-old farmer took a moment to glance out over his flooded field.

"This is the first year we planted wheat and it looks like we're going to lose most of it," he said. "We'll live through it. We always have."

Hitt speaks for many stoic Midwesterners battling yet another flood that has left five dead in Missouri and forced thousands out of their homes. President Bush has already declared a major disaster in the state.

Torrential rains over a 36-hour period that began Monday and ended Wednesday caused flash flooding Tuesday and Wednesday. Now, attention has turned to flooding along many rivers -- the Current, the Big, the Black, the Gasconade, the Meramec.

By Friday, even the Mighty Mississippi was rising above flood stage at some towns. Cape Girardeau -- where a foot of rain fell this week -- was getting the worst of it. The river was expected to crest at 44.5 feet. Flood stage is 32 feet. A flood wall protects the historic downtown area but a few homes in low-lying area could be jeopardized.

People were still packed into shelters in small towns near Cape Girardeau -- Zalma, Delta, Marble Hill, Piedmont.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said he was reminded of the Great Flood of 1993 when he flew over the Cape Girardeau area on Thursday.

"When you looked to the south and the east from the airplane, in the southeast part of the state in many of the fields it looks like a vast inland sea," Kinder said. "The flooding is just so enormous."

At least 70 Missouri counties have reported flooding this week. Gov. Matt Blunt on Friday issued an executive order allowing the Department of Natural Resources to grant waivers to help expedite the removal and disposal of flood debris. The order gives DNR the discretion to waive laws and rules pertaining to waste disposal.

The U.S. Coast Guard reported that its crews in boats and in the air had rescued 52 people and 15 pets this week from flood waters in and around Poplar Bluff, Allenville and Eureka. Forty people were trapped on Coon Island near Poplar Bluff after a levee broke on Wednesday, but were rescued by two Coast Guard helicopters sent up from New Orleans.

Along the Meramec River in eastern Missouri, residents of Valley Park could only cross their fingers that the town's levee, built in 2005, will hold back the surging river that is expected to crest at a record 40 feet on Saturday -- 24 feet above flood stage. If the levee breaks or is overtopped, nearly one-third of the town's 6,500 residents could see their homes damaged or destroyed.

Flooding on the Meramec should top 1993 levels at several Missouri towns, including Valley Park, Eureka, Fenton, Pacific. Major Byron Medloch of the Salvation Army said that 1,000 people displaced by the Meramec were housed in shelters. Another 1,000 had been in shelters near Poplar Bluff in far southeast Missouri, where the surging Black River breached several levees, though Medloch said many began returning home on Friday.

"People are tired," Medloch said. "Tired of fighting and tired of waiting."

Donna Gerstein-Russell, who just moved her medical transcription business from another St. Louis suburb to Valley Park in January, was evacuating, but "staying positive."

"The biggest thing is not knowing what to expect," she said.

Not everyone was worried. Betty Crites has lived in Valley Park for 35 years. Was she packing?

"Not a thing," she said. "We've got a $50 million levee."

Levees didn't help much in some areas. Flood waters surged through levees near Poplar Bluff and Cape Girardeau this week. Cape Girardeau County's emergency management director, Dick Knaup, said at least 200 homes and 13 businesses have been evacuated in the county.

In Eureka, an 88-year-old great-great-great grandmother, Louise Cassidy, helped the sandbagging efforts after surviving a flood in nearby Valley Park in 1945. She had 3 feet of water in her home five days after giving birth to her third child, so she now wants to help others survive this flood.

"I was rolling bags and tying them," she said. "I can't lift them because I'm not as young as I used to be, but I figure every little bit helps."

Flooding has closed hundreds of roads in Missouri, though some have reopened. But lanes of Interstate 44 were shut down in Phelps County and near the rising Meramec in southwest St. Louis County. Muddy brown water lapped just off the shoulder near Fenton. I-44 was down to one lane westbound, causing a 5-mile-long traffic jam at midday Friday. Highway workers hurriedly erected concrete barriers and sandbags in an effort to keep the roadway open.

In Pacific, police urged those in motor boats to stay away from flooded neighborhoods, worried that wakes could cause even more damage to the 200 or so flooded homes.

In Fenton, the mayor put out a call for volunteers to help fill sandbags to try and fight off the Meramec.

"The river is continuing to come up," Mayor Dennis Hancock said. "It continues to come up rapidly."

In Dutchtown, south of Cape Girardeau, residents picked through belongings and pumped water from flooded homes a day after the small town was evacuated and covered by 3 feet of water.

Residents said a system of channels and levees around Dutchtown protect it from the Mississippi River. But on Tuesday, rain was so heavy that creeks swelled near town, causing a surge that quickly swept through homes and businesses.

"It was a matter of 15 minutes," said Marsha Carroll, 29.

She and her husband, Travis, were told to evacuate at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. Marsha said, as they drove out of town, a wall of water came rushing over the road. Travis hit the gas pedal and hurried through it.

"If he hadn't have punched it, it would have carried us off," she said.

AP reporter Betsy Taylor in Eureka provided information for this report.

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