3 levees in Lincoln County break, inundating dozens of homes

Friday, June 20, 2008

FOLEY, Mo. -- Three Mississippi River levees broke Thursday in Lincoln County, sending a gush of water toward the small town of Foley and causing more concern in nearby Winfield.

With the Mississippi River overflowing 90 percent of the levees in eastern Lincoln County, at least four more breaches were expected to worsen the flooding overnight, said Lincoln County Emergency Management spokesman Andy Binder.

"The levees are deteriorating at a pretty rapid pace," he said. At least 60 to 70 homes in Foley will be under water, he said. Each levee failure put more pressure on the remaining levees in the region, which protect towns like Winfield and Elsberry.

While the situation worsened in Lincoln County, it improved elsewhere along the river. The National Weather Service on Thursday significantly lowered crest predictions. The revised projections came after several levee breaks in Illinois, including one on Wednesday near Meyer, Ill., that potentially could inundate 17,000 acres of Illinois farmland with water that would have been flowing south.

A levee broke late Wednesday near Winfield, about 50 miles north of St. Louis. Another broke northeast of Winfield around 1:30 p.m. Thursday. A little over an hour later, a levee break close to nearby Elsberry and sent water toward Foley, a town of about 200 residents. The fourth breach, northeast of Elsberry, happened early Thursday evening.

Winfield's inland levee still stood between the town of 720 and the water. A team of 150 National Guard members helped local volunteers stack sandbags.

Many Winfield residents moved to higher ground. Opinions were mixed among Main Street merchants about whether the flood protection efforts would pay off.

Until Thursday, crests were expected to be at or near record levels set in 1993 at Canton, Hannibal, Saverton, Louisiana, Clarksville and Winfield. But the latest projections are that those towns will see crests 1 foot to 3 feet lower than previously predicted, starting Sunday to the north through Tuesday at Winfield.

Winfield's inland levee still stood between the town of 720 and the water. A team of 150 National Guard members helped local volunteers stack sandbags.

Many Winfield residents moved to higher ground. Opinions were mixed among Main Street merchants about whether the flood protection efforts would pay off.

Faith Burgess was staying put at her store, Second Time Around Antiques, confident the levee would hold. But next door, Randy Meyerpeter was packing up merchandise from his Tin Lizzie Antique Shop and moving, worried that even if the influx of water didn't topple the levee it might cause sewage to back up.

"It just ain't worth the chance," he said.

The new prediction shows St. Louis cresting at 37.3 feet on Friday, well short of the 49.58-foot mark in 1993.

In Canton, the river dropped more than 4 feet to below 23 feet. It dropped 2 feet in Hannibal.

Canton emergency management director Jeff McReynolds called the lower crest prediction exciting news, but said a voluntary evacuation order won't be lifted until officials are certain the levee is sound.

"I know folks want to go home, but we also want to keep them safe and we will make the best decision as quickly as we can," he said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Kramper said river towns aren't safe yet.

"There will still be a lot of places with major flooding," Kramper said. "Even at the levels we're expecting now, a lot of places are threatened."

Problems continued at several Missouri sites. In La Grange, just south of Canton, Terrible's Mark Twain Casino closed its doors on Wednesday due to flooding that left Main Street submerged in murky water. Most residents live uphill from downtown and out of harm's way, but a few homes were taking on water.

Sandbagging continued in Clarksville as the picturesque town tried to stop the water from the small downtown filled with arts shops and antique stores.

In Louisiana, Mo., Mayor Don Giltner said about 10 businesses and 20 to 30 homes had water damage in the town of 3,900.

"The good part, if there is a good part, is that we had advance notice," Giltner said. "We knew it was coming; we knew when it would get here, and when it'll leave. We're hanging in there."

The St. Charles County town of West Alton sits near the convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Many people have evacuated.

"You never know when there will be a breach in the levee," alderwoman Beth Machens said. "It's better to move back than have to move out in a hurry."

About 300 people accepted buyouts and moved away from West Alton after the 1993 flood. Recalling that fateful summer, Mayor William Niemeyer knows what to expect if the levee breaks.

"The whole town was under water," he said.

The flooding isn't expected to be as bad in St. Louis, but it was causing trouble. The city's annual Fourth of July festival, Fair St. Louis, and the Live on the Levee concert series, are moving to a new location. Setup has to begin in late June and organizers aren't sure floodwaters will have subsided enough by then.

Like many flood-ravaged spots in the Midwest, people in the Winfield area are pulling together.

Terry and Mary Hardin of Winfield lost their home in the Great Flood of 1993. Threatened again, the couple and their 10-year-old special needs daughter left behind their mobile home and moved in with their trash man and his family in nearby Troy.

Ken and Kim Knickmeyer barely knew the Hardin family but extended the offer after learning they had to evacuate. Knickmeyer's family fixed up the basement, where the Hardins are now staying.

"This just needed to be done," Kimberly Knickmeyer said. "They needed help, and we had the space."


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

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