Cape declared disaster area for third time this year; river expected to rise

Wednesday, June 25, 2008
KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com The swollen Mississippi River passed downtown Cape Girardeau Wednesday, June 18, 2008.

Cape Girardeau County was declared a disaster area today for the third time in 2008. The announcement came just hours after the National Weather Service predicted that the highest river crest of the year would reach the city on July 2.

The latest rise in river levels was attributed to strong storms that Tuesday night and Wednesday morning dumped as much as 7 inches of rain in a short period over northern Missouri. The rush of water will push the Mississippi River up almost two feet at Cape Girardeau over the coming week, the National Weather Service predicted.

The river level at Cape Girardeau was 41.36 feet at 5 p.m., more than nine feet above flood stage. The river reached 41.3 feet at 6 p.m. Sunday and has stayed with an inch of that level all week. The new prediction, anticipating a crest of 43 feet on July 2, reverses the previous forecast that the river would remain near 41 feet for several more days before beginning to fall.

The record crest at Cape Girardeau was 48.49 feet on Aug. 8, 1993. The city's floodwall protects downtown Cape Girardeau to a river level of 54 feet.

"Five inches of rain over the Missouri River basin is what is causing it," said Deanna Lindstrom, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Paducah, Ky. "All that water has got to go down the Mississippi."

The crest prediction was the first evaluation of what the heavy rain will do to the river, which is already causing headaches from Iowa to St. Louis. A new round of storms that will move through the state Friday and Saturday could bring additional rises.

"There does look like there is another cold frontal system and another potential for moderate to heavy rainfall," said Greg Meffert, lead forecaster at the Paducah weather office. The forecast settles down after that, with dry weather for about a week, he said.

Since June 1, the river has risen 10 feet at Cape Girardeau while total rainfall at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport has totaled 0.58 inches.

President George Bush issued the disaster declaration late Wednesday afternoon, making federal flood-fighting assistance available to local governments seeking to hold back rising waters. The declaration covered 22 counties, including every Missouri county along the Mississippi River from Iowa to Arkansas.

Previous disaster declarations for Cape Girardeau County came after a destructive ice storm in February and torrential rains in March.

The current round of flooding has breached and overflowed a total of 35 levees in northern Missouri, Illinois and Iowa. Problems have been limited south of St. Louis, where a wider river has more room to accommodate heavy flows.

The current flooding, caused by rains two weeks ago in Iowa, Wisconsin, Northern Illinois and northern Missouri, has inundated hundreds of low-lying farm acres in Cape Girardeau County, stopped rail traffic through Cape Girardeau and kept local officials on alert. A 43-foot crest would swamp additional crop acres, could force the city to begin dumping untreated sewage in the river and raise anxiety in areas recovering from flash flooding in March.

Tim Gramling, director of public works for Cape Girardeau, said a 42-foot river stage is the level when the city begins feeling major impacts from rising water. At that level, the city must consider shutting down the sewage treatment plant off South Sprigg Street and allow waste to reach the river untreated.

As the river rises above that level, water begins to approach the few flood-prone homes in the Red Star area that were not part of a flood-buyout. "One thing we will be doing is we will be making regular patrols where the water is getting up."

Cape Public Works Director Tim Gramling talks about the flooding and its effect on city services

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