With sandbags and sweat, Mo. residents prepare for floods

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

CANTON, Mo. (AP) -- Hundreds of volunteers stacked sandbags atop a levee here Tuesday evening, hoping the extra few feet of protection would save the town from record-level flood crests expected to hit this week. National Guardsmen, local residents, state prisoners and Amish families worked side by side as the swift Mississippi River current lapped near the top of the earthen wall.

"Everyone just comes together and gets the job done. That's how we do it in Lewis County," said 31-year-old Canton resident John Campen. While he expected the town to pull together, he was surprised by the crowds that have come from elsewhere.

"It really means a lot when you see someone you don't recognize," Campen said.

Canton and other towns along the Mississippi River are bracing for flood crests expected to match or exceed levels not seen since the devastating floods of 1993. The National Weather Service predicted earlier this week the flooding might not break records set 15 years ago. But as tributaries in rain-soaked Iowa continue to swell the muddy river, the estimates have been revised upward.

"This new forecast brings (new) records into possibility," said meteorologist Mark Fuchs.

In towns like La Grange, located just a few miles down river from Canton, the damage has already been extensive. Most of Main Street was submerged Tuesday afternoon, even as waters continued to rise.

Ken Schutz, president of Town & County Bank downtown, watched nervously as bank employees waded through hip-deep water to take pumps into the bank building, which was surrounded by a wall of sandbags. Nine pumps were placed around the building, humming loudly as they spewed water back out into the river as it seeped in through the wall.

"We kept (the water) out in '93," Schutz said. But that year, the flood levels rose slowly. "Now it's rising so fast," he fretted.

Lt. Governor Peter Kinder said late Tuesday that he had deployed nearly 500 National Guard members to flood-stricken communities in northeast Missouri. The Missouri Department of Corrections has dispatched 186 offenders to help fortify sandbags in Clarksville, Canton, Louisiana and Marion County.

In Canton, floodwaters are expected to crest Thursday at 27.7 feet, well above the 24.5 feet for which the city's levee is designed, said emergency management director Jeff McReynolds. The levee has a 3-foot extension and volunteers have added 2 feet on top of that.

McReynolds said flood preparations would end Tuesday in anticipation of the flood crest.

"We feel pretty good," McReynolds said. "We've had 1,800 volunteers since the weekend. But it's D-Day today. We have to be done today. We're at 99 percent."

McReynolds said his main fear is that 10 days of prolonged high water will place too much pressure on the levee.

"Am I nervous? Hell yes," he said.

Floodwaters weren't expected to crest until Saturday in towns further south, such as the artists' colony of Clarksville. The picturesque, red-brick town's antique mall and restaurants were surrounded by floodwaters as National Guard members and volunteers built a massive sandbag wall, at places 12 feet wide and 8 feet tall.

A group from New Orleans, with painful memories of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, was due to arrive soon.

With five city blocks already swamped, Mayor Jo Anne Smiley said Clarksville was doing all it could to prepare for Saturday evening's projected 38-foot crest.

"We fix one thing and it breaks," she said. "Sewers are plugged up. We have leaks in walls, and people who need things. We're boating food to people.

"I cry a lot, but I get a lot of e-mail prayers. That helps."

The Guard members, many of whom have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, were glad to be helping in Missouri.

A couple in their 20s, Amanda Elliott and Victor Wright, have been working with relatives and volunteers since Friday to save his aunt's home, where they're staying. A group used a boat to ferry sandbags through a yard filled with water, while Elliott, who has a sprained ankle, sat in lawn chairs with her foot elevated and opened bags for others to fill with sand.

"Yesterday morning, I just couldn't lift another sandbag," said the home's owner, Roberta Hilton of Laurie. "I own the house, but at one point, I thought, 'Is it worth it?"'

South of Clarksville in Lincoln County floodwaters have begun overtopping levees along Highway 79 that protect Elsberry, Winfield, Old Monroe, Foley and agricultural ground. Authorities said complete overtopping was expected Wednesday night. So far, no levees have breached.

Communities east of Highway 79 were urged to evacuate. Fire departments are going door-to-door to check on residents in that area. Missouri National Guard troops are bolstering levees. Volunteers are still needed in Lincoln County and elsewhere to sandbag.

Levees at Canton and Hannibal, to the south, were the only ones from Burlington, Iowa, to St. Louis that held in what's known as the Great Flood of 1993. Authorities in both towns believe their levees will hold during this flood too. Hannibal is so confident that it suspended sandbagging of its levee and flood wall on Tuesday.

"We're in pretty good shape," Hannibal Deputy Police Chief Lt. James Hark said. "The river has dropped a tad because of levee breaks north of us."

The river at Hannibal is projected to crest at 31.8 feet at 1 p.m. Friday, which would match the old record set in 1993.

Downtown businesses, including sites of the city's most famous son, Mark Twain, were dry. "People are walking and driving," Hark said. "It's business as usual."

Still, the rural landscape appeared surreal in places as homes and towns slipped under water. Just south of La Grange, 25-year-old Jerad Ludwig waded in the shallows of a flooded corn field, carrying a bow and arrow. He was hunting river carp drawn in with the currents. Ludwig peered into the muddy waves until he saw the silver flash of carp as it neared the surface, pulling his bow and firing into the water.

"If they're around grass, they play around and start rolling," Ludwig said. He already had three of the fat, pale fish stowed in a barrel on the bed of his pickup truck. He planned to deep-fry two on Tuesday night.

Associated Press reporters Cheryl Wittenauer in St. Louis and Betsy Taylor in Clarksville contributed to this report.

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