Scott, Mississippi, New Madrid counties prepare for river flooding

Wednesday, June 18, 2008
KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com A Mississippi River marker indicates high levels Thursday, March 20, 2008, in Commerce, Mo. The river has risen again, putting the Commerce riverfront underwater.

SIKESTON, Mo. — As the threat of flooding along the Mississippi River looms, Southeast Missouri towns are continuing to feel the effects of wet weather over the past six months — which are the wettest on record for the December-May period in the state's history.

"It varies from place to place," Jeff House, agronomist with New Madrid County's University of Missouri Extension office, said of the effects on fields. "But what's staring us in the face right now is the rising river — that's got the potential of hurting some stuff."

Mississippi River crests are expected around the area early next week, according to the National Weather Service.

And that threat has people scrambling.

Tim Coppage, performance marketing leader at Cargill, said the Buffalo Island location, near Charleston, Mo., is closed until the river subsides.

He noted that farmers can still take their grain to Sikeston and New Madrid locations. "And a lot of the guys we've talked to are going to stick it in the bin and haul it later," he said.

Elsewhere, people are preparing for the floodwaters. Joel Evans, emergency management director for Scott County, said he's done some modeling to predict the affect in Commerce.

"That will give us a better idea of which businesses and residences are going to be affected," he said. "It looks like we're going to be within two feet of the 2003 depths."

While there aren't any efforts yet, people are getting ready. "We've notified some of our volunteers to be prepared," said Evans. "We have also ordered additional sand brought to the highways department, and we have probably 500 filled sandbags stockpiled already and can have them to Commerce in an hour's time."

Evans noted that since there is no measuring station for river levels at Commerce, they use the information for Thebes, Ill., to help predict levels.

Those in New Madrid have also been working to try and keep rising waters back, by patching and shoring up the levees.

"There's a group of us that works together," said Robert Henry, a farmer and seed dealer in New Madrid. "We've got them pretty much shored back up."

So now people can only sit back and hope for the best.

Every time they release a report, we're hoping they reduce it just a little bit, but with all the water they've got up north, it just doesn't seem possible, said Henry."

He added that situations like these stress the importance of the St. John's Bayou/New Madrid Floodway Project. "It would take a lot of weight off of us if we could get it done," he said.

But the imminent flood threat isn't all that's causing worry now. High precipitation levels from earlier this year — largely due to March and April rains — have pushed back crop planting and harvests.

"I'd say all the crops are probably off a bit this year," said David Reinbott, an agronomist with the University of Missouri Extension office in Scott County. "Everything is just behind."

Anthony Ohmes, an agronomist at Mississippi County's extension office, agreed. "Corn planting went on into May this year, and it's usually finished by the end of April," he said. "And some of the people I've talked to have reduced their acreage slightly."

House has seen that, too. "I don't think all the cotton and corn got planted, but a majority of it did," he said. "I don't think it's a major detriment — as far as what we got planted when we did, they worked like crazy. It all depended on whether you could get in (the fields) or not."

Ohmes said wheat harvests began over the weekend and should be full-blast this week — weather permitting. And farmers have yet to see whether the water affected the wheat crop.

"As we move into some of those fields [where water stressed the plants] the quality of the grain might not be up to par," he said. "That's because the kernel weight may be down — although some preliminary tests have shown weights are OK. It's going to be a field-by-field situation."

The agronomists added that garden plants are also a bit behind schedule due to the weather. "I think some of the plants aren't putting on,"said Reinbott, noting they are out of whack because a hot, dry snap followed as soon as most could get plants in the ground.

And Ohmes added that the sweet corn crop will be affected by the wetness, too. "A lot of the commercial sweet corn growing in the county is not going to happen, due to the water," he said. "Some of the smaller ones will still plant it, but it will be late."

According to a recent news release from the University of Missouri Extension, the average amount of precipitation across the state averaged just over 30 inches from Dec. 1 through the end of May. The previous record for that time period was in 1973, when there were 29.21 inches of precipitation.

Mary Lamm, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service's office in Paducah, Ky., explained the wet period, in addition to almost double the typical number of tornadoes with the La Nina phenomenon, which is a recurrent cooling of surface waters in the equatorial Pacific.

"The overall weather pattern can be attributed to that," said Lamm. But she noted it will end soon. "It is weakening and transitioning, so we should be coming out of that wetter than normal period."

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