In Hannibal, flood perception is worse than reality

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

HANNIBAL, Mo. (AP) _ After false reports that he had passed away, Mark Twain famously said, "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

The same is true of his hometown. Would-be visitors are staying away from the town that relies heavily on the annual influx of 500,000 tourists as perception of the flood here is worse than the reality.

"We want people to know that not only are we high and dry but we're safe," tourism director Beau Hicks said Wednesday.

Like other towns along the upper Mississippi River, this community of 17,000 residents is under siege. The crest is expected Friday at or near the 31.8-foot high-water mark of 1993 — the second 500-year flood in 15 years. Parts of town are under several feet of water, though the government buyouts after the 1993 flood left only a few scattered homes and businesses in the flood plain.

Downtown, though, is protected by a levee built to withstand a crest of 34 feet. For added insurance, the town has added concrete and sandbags to the top. Emergency management officials are so confident that sandbagging has ceased. The only tourist business impacted is the Mark Twain Riverboat.

Still, merchants and town officials know all the talk about flooding gives a false impression.

Hicks said one hotel had 74 cancellations in a 12-hour period earlier this week. His office has received hundreds of calls from would-be visitors inquiring whether Hannibal was under water.

"We were going strong through the weekend, and then came Monday and Tuesday and the bottom fell out of it as the dateline on the flood stories became Hannibal," Hicks said.

To battle the perception, the visitor's bureau installed a Web cam showing downtown and linked it to its home page. The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum posted a message on its Web site: "Mark Twain's home is high and dry in Hannibal, Mo."

"We're all still open for business," museum executive director Regina Faden said. "In fact, Hannibal is a place you can come and watch the river."

Many are doing just that. Becky's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor & Emporium owner Sara Anton said she's seen an uptick in business, mostly from those who came to town to gawk at the river. There are breathtaking views of the flood from the Cardiff Hill lighthouse north of downtown and Lover's Leap to the south. Both were bustling with visitors Wednesday.

Downtown, meanwhile, was mostly quiet except for a group of senior citizens who arrived by bus from Ames, Iowa.

"We've been in contact the last four or five days," tour organizer Vickie Newell said. "Everybody said, 'come on down.' We've been planning this trip for six months so we didn't want to cancel."

One flood-related problem for Hannibal right now is getting here. Missouri Route 79 runs along the river and is closed south of town. U.S. 61 is open at Hannibal but closed near the Iowa border, 60 miles to the north. Many roads in Illinois are also closed. The Hannibal bridge remains open.

The town's biggest tourism event is National Tom Sawyer Days over the Fourth of July. Hicks said the tourism office plans a TV and radio advertising campaign starting next week. Now, that campaign will include the tag line that Hannibal is dry.

Hicks knows not everyone will be convinced.

"No matter what you tell some people, they hear 'flood' and don't hear anything after that," he said.


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