Buidling 'a poor man's levee'

Thursday, June 19, 2008

In March, Pete Starkey couldn't keep floodwaters from reaching his Dutchtown home on Highway 74.

That water came fast and furious as the result of heavy rains in the hills to the north and west. But now, as rising Mississippi River water approaches slowly in nearby fields, Starkey and other residents on the south side of Highway 74 near the intersection with Highway 25 have time to build up a temporary wall of sand and gravel.

"A poor man's levee is what it is," Starkey said as he paused from using a shovel to contour the pile, which will be covered in a sheet of plastic and held in place by sandbags.

The rock was donated by Strack Stone, hauled by Mark Graham and put in place with small backhoes donated by David Allen Farms. The residents are hoping the temporary embankment will keep water out when the Mississippi River reaches an expected crest of 43.5 feet Tuesday. The predicted crest is 2.5 feet above the highest mark reached after the March rains.

The river in Cape Girardeau stood at 39.2 feet at 6 p.m. Wednesday, 7.2 feet above flood stage. Floodgates at Themis Street, Broadway and along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad have been closed. Water stood on Main Street just north of Sloan Creek and Cape Girardeau public works placed barricades on the street, but some motorists drove through the few inches of standing water. The Main Street gate must be closed if the river reaches 42 feet.

The rising water, the result of heavy rains last week in Wisconsin, northern Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, is reaching record levels at some stations in northeast Missouri. While many levees north of St. Louis could be overtopped by rising water, the crests south of St. Louis are expected to be well below record levels. Few if any levees south of St. Louis are expected to be underwater, said Nicole Dalrymple, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district office in St. Louis.

"We are not going to see any overtoppings based on the current forecast," she said. "Additional rain is kind of the wild card."

The corps will finish its evaluation of levees in Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois today and put the information on the district office's Web site, she said.

The region is in the earliest stage of a flood fight, which includes contacting levee and drainage districts, making sure the leaders are aware of predicted river levels and are ready to mobilize help in case of additional rain, she said.

The biggest effect of the rising water could be on the pocketbooks of farmers. Many delayed planting as they waited for fields to dry out. Now they face losing crops already planted as they hurry to gather the winter wheat crops that are just reaching maturity.

James Reitzel was busy Wednesday afternoon harvesting wheat on farmland northwest of Allenville. He and his son, Mark Reitzel, had cut 50 acres Wednesday morning and were working on another 50-acre field in the afternoon.

The grain isn't really ready to harvest, James Reitzel said -- the moisture content is 20 percent and the ideal is 13 percent. That means spending money on propane to dry the grain before it can be sold. "But it is either that or lose it," he said.

From the seat on his combine, Reitzel pointed to corn in a nearby field and noted it is "twisting up bad" for lack of water. In a few days, if the crest prediction is accurate, the field will be drowned by floodwaters.

In all, the Reitzels have 125 acres where they planned to plant soybeans but won't because of flooding and another 170 acres of corn they expect to lose.

Those losses, along with severe losses in Iowa and other areas experiencing flooding, on Wednesday pushed crop prices up to near-record levels on the Chicago Board of Trade. Corn to be delivered in December finished the day at $7.78 a bushel. Soybean futures for July delivery traded at $15.56, while wheat for July delivery ended the day at $9.05 a bushel.

At those prices, the 100 acres of wheat, with an average yield of 40 bushels per acre, is worth $36,000.

It may be possible to plant a soybean crop, Mark Reitzel said, but the fields must be dry by July 15. And while it may sound like farmers are making good profits, he said the price of diesel fuel for tractors and trucks is well over $4 a gallon and fertilizer costs have risen dramatically as well.

As the Reitzels worked to gather their grain, Bob Moss of Affordable Furniture in Dutchtown accepted delivery of new merchandise Wednesday and hoped for the best. The store was flooded by about two feet of water in March.

And while the delivery shows Moss intends to remain open, he's got his eye on the water.

"I have been here too many years to feel confident," Moss said. "It changes so fast."


335-6611, extension 126

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