Heavy rains increase flood concerns along Mississippi River

Friday, April 22, 2011

CLARKSVILLE, Mo. (AP) -- Watching the Mississippi River pour out over its banks doesn't get Jeanie Eisenhower too worked up. The retired school teacher's father and grandfather were commercial fishermen. She understands that flooding is a part of the life cycle on the Mississippi.

"I'm a river rat," Eisenhower said Friday at the Bee Naturals shop where she works in retirement, barely glancing out the front window, where murky river water was slowly creeping up. "Water comes up every spring -- it's supposed to."

True enough, but how far it might come up is worrying flood watchers in Missouri. The National Weather Service is now predicting near-major flooding in Clarksville and two nearby towns, Hannibal and Louisiana. Every Missouri town on the Mississippi -- including St. Louis -- will see flooding, too.

More worrisome is the weather: Clarksville, where a tornado damaged a dozen homes earlier this week, got soaked again on Friday. So did many other towns. The National Weather Service predicts that some parts of Missouri could get up to 9 inches of rain over the next several days before a front finally moves on in the middle of next week.

Where all that water actually falls will have a big impact on where flooding occurs, Weather Service hydrologist Mark Fuchs said. "Where it's major and where it's just a pretty good flood, it's hard to say," he said.

Fuchs warned that tributary rivers in eastern Missouri like the Big, the Meramec, the Black and the St. Francis could all rise quickly. Several areas were under flood and/or flash flood watches and warnings.

Generally speaking, the National Weather Service defines minor flooding as a nuisance with little human impact except for wet fields and local road closures. Moderate flooding shuts down state roads and impacts structures like river camps. Major flooding gets into homes and businesses and shuts down major roads and highways.

The good news is that most Missouri communities took advantage of federal buyout programs after the 1993 and 1995 floods, leaving few homes or businesses in harm's way.

"The flood buyouts really paid off for us," said Mark Hasheider, in charge of emergency preparations in Cape Girardeau, Missouri's second-largest Mississippi River community behind St. Louis.

That doesn't mean flooding doesn't cause problems. Even though a flood wall built in the 1960s protects Cape Girardeau, the high water can make access to the town's sewer treatment plant next to impossible. Roads could be closed.

In Hannibal, a levee completed months before the 1993 flood protects the historic downtown and the Mark Twain sites. Workers spent this week installing the flood gates in gaps in the levee normally open so traffic can move to the riverfront.

Clarksville, a scenic town of 500 residents on Highway 79 about 70 miles north of St. Louis, sits at one of the widest spots on the Mississippi. The town is home to many artists, craftsmen, furniture makers. Its tidy shops sit in a small downtown area separated from the river by a small park and a wide street. There is no levee.

On Friday, volunteers were arriving to hurriedly fill more sandbags. Clarksville will utilize a new flood-fighting defense, with sections of a removable 3-foot-high flood wall supplemented with sandbags, perhaps as many as 100,000 of them.

"We're filling sandbags as fast as we can," Mayor Jo Anne Smiley said. "The river is teasing up. It's up there, that's for sure. When the park starts to fill up we know there's the potential it will get into the streets."

Richard Cottrell, owner of Richard's Great Stuff, an antique and gift store on the street facing the river, was taking the rising water in stride -- sort of.

"It always makes you nervous and your throat gets full," said Cottrell, whose stately brick home also sits just a couple of blocks from the river. "I'm not totally at ease, but I've been through this before."

So has Eisenhower, whose home in the flood plain took in 3 feet of water in 1973 and again in 1993.

To Eisenhower, flooding is just part of life along the river.

"It's not an earthquake. It's not a tornado. Water comes in, you clean it up, and you go on," she said.

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