Floodwaters closing in on East Prairie

Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Precious Davis, 26, brother Tyrell Harris, 12, and Dorian Weems, from left, of Cairo, Ill., stay at The Eagle Inn in Charleston, Mo., on Monday, May 2, 2011, after being evacuated. (Laura Simon)

EAST PRAIRIE, Mo. -- The Eagle Inn is warm, clean, comfortable.

Most important for Selene Davis and her tired family, the roadside motel at the edge of Charleston, Mo., is dry.

As of 6 p.m. Monday, Davis, her fiancee, Dorian Weems, her 12-year-old son, Tyrell Harris, and 26-year-old daughter, Precious Davis, had spent the past 36 hours at four addresses. By 9 a.m. today, they plan to be heading to a fifth, at much higher and dryer ground in Carbondale, Ill.

The family has joined a long line of flood refugees fleeing from heavy rains and record high water pummeling Southeast Missouri, Southern Illinois, western Kentucky and points south -- where an unforgiving Mississippi River and its tributaries have devoured community after community.

Davis and her loved ones escaped their longtime home in Cairo, Ill., forced to evacuate as the river gauge there hit uncharted levels above 61 feet, on the verge of drowning the city. They fled to Sikeston, Mo., and were told to leave there. They were back on the outskirts of Cairo for an hour Monday morning, when state troopers told them they had to go.

"We got out of there in the nick of time," said Davis, 45, who has lived, worked and raised her family in Cairo for more than half her life. She doesn't know if there will be a Cairo left when she returns. Her daughter prays there will.

"Hopefully, we have some home to go back to," Precious Davis said.

Washed out

Late Monday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would detonate the Birds Point-New Madrid levee system, releasing floodwaters on an agriculturally rich area of some 130,000 acres in the floodway. While it will drown the farm fields and the 100 homes in the spillway, the controlled breach, the corps says, is designed to save thousands of homes and millions of acres -- and perhaps many lives -- in Cairo and many communities southward from the ravages of an uncontrolled breach of the levee system.

But the destruction will create more refugees traveling the swamped roads of flooded cities.

On Monday afternoon, Josh Mobley, 18, and his girlfriend were fleeing East Prairie, where water was closing in on all sides of city of 3,200 people in southern Mississippi County, in the shadow of the floodway. Mobley, his mother, father, and two younger siblings were forced to evacuate their flooded Dorena, Mo., home, last week, like scores of residents living in the spillway. He said it's hard to explain what it feels like to be told by National Guard soldiers that you have to leave your home.

"It's something I've never been through, and it's something I don't want to go through again," Mobley said.

In his hotel room, at the Grace Inn on Highway 105, the motel with a halo just above the G on the sign, are many of the possessions the family could take, including all of the photo albums and a large Bible stacked on a table. Outside, heavy rain fell and floodwater stood half a foot high in the motel parking lot, moving closer and closer to the inn's doors.

Mobley, like many East Prairie residents, worried the detonation of the levee would weaken a secondary levee, sending river water cascading into the community.

'Wait it out'

On Washington Drive, heading into downtown East Prairie, Jim Reno stood inside a dry Napa auto parts store as vehicles chugged through a street that looked more like an Olympic-sized pool. A row of sandbags helped keep torrents from spilling beneath the door. Like so many of his Mississippi County brethren, Reno could only wait for what was next.

"Everybody's like me," the store manager said. "You just have to wait it out."

The waiting and the unceasing rain were starting to take an emotional toll on residents. Kevin McWhirter, early Monday afternoon watched the floodwaters encroach ever closer to the Boomland retail complex just off Interstate 57 in Charleston. He works at the convenience store, but he lives in East Prairie. Before he left for work, the water was up to his porch, up to the top of his boots. His friends and neighbors have fought the corps' plan to breach the levee. McWhirter looked at the rising waters and the torrential rains and knew it was all a foregone conclusion.

"I hope they hurry up and do it so we'll stop worrying about it," he said. "There's been so many different stories about when they're going to do it, if they're going to do it. That's what everyone is worried about, and if they are, are they going to do it in the middle of the night."

'Heart-wrenching story'

All of McWhirter's questions were answered a few hours later, when corps officials announced the detonation would occur at night, out of necessity to complete the operation as soon as possible.

Col. Wendul Hagler of the Missouri Army National Guard's 70th Troop Command, said the Guard has conducted a sweep of every home in the floodway, but would continue, weather permitting, to send aircraft above to monitor the area.

"To the best of our knowledge, no one remains in the area," he said.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission and the man charged with making the call to "operate the project," called his decision a "story of the human dimension."

"It's impacting lots of folks," he said. "Up and down the river there are a lot of people who have abandoned their home to get to higher ground.

"It's a heart-wrenching story."

Two perspectives

Robert Jackson sees the story from two perspectives. The Mississippi County commissioner is responsible for about 13,000 residents, but he also leases farmland in the spillway, including acreage just beneath the levee -- the first to be covered in floodwater. Jackson said he had resigned himself to the destruction of the levee.

"I'm telling people now, we can't start drying up until we finish getting wet, so let's get on with it," he said.

Despite his loss, Jackson defended the corps, saying he doesn't believe the engineers could have done more to protect human life or property.

The levee's breach is made more palatable by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's pledge Monday to assist the farmers and property owners in the floodway. Jackson said Mississippi County and its resilient residents will be back.

"The sun's going to shine again," he said. "I bet you before the year's out we're running irrigation because it's dry."

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

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