Water drops in Canton; levee breach at Winfield

Thursday, June 19, 2008

CANTON, Mo. (AP) -- Nightfall brought some relief to flood fighters in one Missouri town, but heartache in another.

In Canton, the Mississippi River level dropped 3 feet overnight. Authorities believe a failed levee north of town continued to siphon floodwaters away.

But town leaders weren't ready to declare victory just yet. After reaching 27.5 feet Tuesday night, then dropping to 24 feet, the river is expected to go back up above 27 feet on Friday morning before starting its decline.

In Winfield, about 50 miles north of St. Louis, a massive levee breach occurred late Wednesday just east of the community of 720 residents. News reports said two homes were ripped from their foundation by the fast-moving floodwater, and were seen floating down the river.

Authorities say more than 35,000 acres have flooded due to the levee break. Meanwhile, volunteers continued sandbagging efforts along a secondary levee that protects most of the town.

"We are urging, my God, people to get out of homes and businesses east of Highway 79," said Cpl. Andy Binder with the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department. "Get out and get to higher ground."

Crests at towns throughout northeast Missouri are expected to reach or near record levels set in 1993. Moderate to major flooding is expected from St. Louis south through the Missouri Bootheel.

Sandbagging efforts continued in Louisiana and Clarksville. Sandbagging has ceased in Hannibal, where officials are confident the levee fortified with 2 feet of sandbags and concrete reinforcement at the top will hold back the river.

The levee breaches to the north also helped Hannibal. The river there reached 29.54 feet Wednesday morning before falling 2 feet. It's expected to go back up and crest at 31.4 feet on Friday morning, less than half a foot below the record 31.8 feet of 1993.

In Canton, emergency response spokeswoman Monica Heaton said the flood has taken a toll on the levee, but it continues to hold thanks in large part to the many volunteers who helped with sandbagging. The break earlier this week in Meyer, Ill., eased pressure and lowered the water level in Canton.

"Water's just spreading out over that agricultural land, and just it's just slowly draining it out," Heaton said.

Canton leaders were cautiously optimistic. Still, Mayor Jeff McReynolds wasn't ready to say the threat was gone.

"Don't breathe a sigh of relief and think it's over," he said. "All that water is going to put immense pressure on the levee, and now the second phase of monitoring the levee and addressing trouble spots has begun."

Levees up and down the Mississippi gave way or were overtopped Wednesday as flood waters swelled from last week's rains in Iowa.

North of St. Louis, about a dozen agricultural levees have been overtopped on the Missouri side of the Mississippi in recent days. In Foley, Police Chief Max Collier said water could reach two-thirds of the community's 80 homes. Residents who live east of Missouri 79 had evacuated. Some roads in the town of 200 were closed.

In Louisiana, Mo., a picturesque and historic river town of 3,900 people south of Hannibal, 40 square blocks with 30 homes and 10 businesses were under water. As many as 300 people have evacuated.

The river there rose 2 feet in one day, and Mayor Don Giltner said he expected it to rise another 2 feet before the projected 28.1-foot crest on Saturday morning. The record there is 28.4 feet in 1993.

Still, the mayor remained upbeat, saying the town was better off than many others.

"There's one thing about Midwesterners," he said. "We're resilient as hell. We're all worn out. We've put in a lot of long days."

The heart of downtown Louisiana is on a hill and wasn't in jeopardy. Stately old buildings that house the Eagle's Nest Bistro, the Grand Central Gallery, and the Bank of Louisiana, founded in 1887, were high and dry.

The effort to protect Canton has been largely driven by local volunteers from the town of 2,600 people.

"My property is right on this street. I've got a lot to lose," said Canton resident Tony Dye, as he pointed to a neighborhood beneath the levee, and well below the river's crest. Dye was driving a dump truck donated by a local construction company, ferrying sandbags to the levee from a parking lot where hundreds of volunteers filled more throughout the day.

Further down river in La Grange, Main Street was submerged in muddy water Wednesday, with waves rippling against the front door of the Driftwood Cafe.

Ken Schutz, president of the Town & Country Bank downtown, enlisted employees earlier this week to protect the building with a plastic-wrapped wall of sandbags. Schutz was in the bank Tuesday night when the wall collapsed, filling the building with 2 feet of water. He escaped safely, but was filled with disappointment. The bank had escaped the flood of 1993 without major damage.

"We'll rebuild and continue on," Schutz said.

Gov. Matt Blunt toured Hannibal and Canton on Wednesday and said he has asked President Bush for a disaster declaration that would provide federal funds to flood-stricken towns.

"This is obviously a very challenging event," he said. "But the worst of Mother Nature brings out the best in Missouri."

Associated Press reporters Jim Salter in Hannibal, Christopher Leonard in Canton, Cheryl Wittenauer in St. Louis, and APTN reporter/photographer Jason Bronis in Louisiana, Mo., contributed to this report.

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