Flooding level inches upward as residents, engineers prepare

Saturday, May 11, 2002

DUTCHTOWN, Mo. -- When John Green stands on his backyard deck, he can see the water now.

He's heard the stories of the Flood of '93, when water climbed to the base of that very deck and swallowed the land where his garden is now planted and his shed now sits. He has lived in that home on the corner of Highways 74 and 25 for two years. He bought the house knowing there was a potential for flood damage, but he was hoping that, by now, the federal government would have assisted local tax efforts and kicked in with funds for a levee.

Across Highway 74, Renee Kielhofner, co-owner of the Dutchtown Outlet, remembers the '93 flood as if it were yesterday. She still has an unused, empty sandbag that was signed by volunteers who labored to help keep Dutchtown protected from the mighty, muddy antagonist.

Like horror movie sequels, the Mississippi River appears to have returned to its evil form once again. Dutchtown residents Friday began preparing for the worst, filling sandbags, removing furniture and organizing plans to fight the ageless beast.

Residents along the roadway near Dutchtown, which is several miles from the river, are still threatened by the nearby Diversion Channel, constructed in the 1920s to handle the Mississippi's overflow. Backwater from creeks and streams flows into the Diversion Channel, causing problems for the Dutchtown area during flooding.

The river, forecasted to crest at 44 feet on Monday, rose almost 2 1/2 feet in 24 hours, leaving the Army Corps of Engineers considering the closure of Highway 74 to start the building of a temporary levee.

"Well, it upsets me because I know what we have to go through," said Imogene Dumey, who followed her statement with a nervous laugh. Dumey has lived in her brick home on Highway 74 since 1979, except a period in 1993 when the water crept its way into her living room. High water in 1995 required sandbag protection, but Dumey was able to stay. Friends placed sandbags along Dumey's garage again Friday afternoon.

Her neighbors to the east have not been through this experience, but Terry King and his family weren't taking any chances. They began removing the furniture from their basement Friday afternoon after hearing, then seeing, the Missouri Department of Transportation dropping sandbags on the side of the road early Friday morning.

Temporary levees take time to build, and even though the water doesn't look too dangerous yet, the Corps was literally inches from beginning the levee-building process Friday.

Bob Anderson with the Corps of Engineers said the magic number for starting the sandbag wall atop the highway is 43 feet, 6 inches. The National Weather Service has forecasted a crest of 44 feet by Monday. However, since Friday morning's river level, 37 feet, one inch, was a foot below what was predicted, the Corps is still on standby. Though lower than predicted, the river here still rose almost 2 1/2 feet in 24 hours.

The crest forecast is subject to change and could change this weekend depending on the amount of rain that threatens the region's already saturated soil. The river forecasts consider predicted rain, but it is an inexact science.

Ryan Presley, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky., bears unwanted news, at least for the short term. Scattered showers were expected late last night and the first part of today. But another cold front is on the way, one that could drop another one to three inches of rain.

Staying optimistic

Since April 1, it has rained 23 of 39 days. During that time, Cape Girardeau has officially seen 11.23 inches of rain, the most in at least 10 years, including 1993. Some areas to the north and west saw five inches of rain in a 24-hour period recently.

"I don't have a good feeling," Kielhofner said. "But I want to stay optimistic. I hope a bad flood doesn't happen, I really don't. This area has been hit too hard."

Should the river crest at 44 feet as predicted -- 32 feet is flood stage at Cape Girardeau -- the handful of homes on the east side of Highway 74 would be put in the most danger because the temporary levee would leave those houses exposed. It will be solely up to volunteers to save those houses. Concerned residents Larry Crutsinger and Bud Obermann were busy coordinating those efforts Friday.

"This is a whole town, no matter what side of the highway you're on," Crutsinger said.

Obermann, town chairman, has been a catalyst in trying to get an earthen levee built to prevent the nervousness that is now gripping the village. The town, which has a population of about 100 and has flooded four times since 1973, was incorporated in 1998, and voters approved a 1-cent sales tax and a 32-cent property tax in 2000. While the town has been collecting its share to go to a levee, its grant application was denied last year. Dutchtown will re-submit an application in June and know an answer as soon as July.

Meanwhile, it's back-breaking, river-beating time again.

bmiller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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