Flood watchers wait for crest

Sunday, May 19, 2002

DUTCHTOWN, Mo. -- The people of Dutchtown know how to fight a flood. They've done it five times since 1973 -- watching the river stages, gathering the volunteers, stacking the sandbags.

So, as they stood atop their most recent temporary levee and waited for today's anticipated Mississippi River crest, they regarded the rising waters with an air of calm resignation instead of gripping fear.

"It starts out as panic," said Julie Parmer, a resident since 1986. "You think, 'God, do I want to do this again?' Then you don't have a choice."

As she spoke Saturday afternoon, frustrated drivers backed up four miles away on Interstate 55 for the sixth day in a row. With construction on the Diversion Channel Bridge reducing the interstate to three lanes and water forcing closure of an alternate route along Highway 74 to Dutchtown, cars were backed up almost to the U.S. 61 exit at Fruitland.

"We got caught in it today coming back from the Cardinals game in St. Louis," said Kevin Upchurch, a contractor who lives just south of Scott City, Mo. "It took two hours to get from the Jackson exit to Diversion Channel. We just sat."

The situation improved after the Missouri Department of Transportation opened two southbound lanes over the Diversion Channel Bridge late Saturday afternoon.

Still, it's that traffic, not their flooding concerns, that Dutchtown residents hope will garner them a permanent levee separating their town of 106 from the Mississippi River Diversion Channel. It would be 7,200 feet long and 12 feet high and run between Highway 74 and the Hubble Creek levee.

The price tag is $923,000, and Dutchtown residents have raised $25,000 with a sales tax, a property tax and various fund raisers. They want the federal government to pay for the rest.

Bob Moss, village clerk, said he thinks the traffic issue might be enough to catch officials' eyes.

"When this effort started, people thought it was a levee to save a little old town," he said. "This flood has really pointed out to everyone the importance of Highway 74 staying open."

Counting on limestone

Since Tuesday, a 2,000 foot stretch of Highway 74 has been covered with the temporary 6-foot-high, limestone levee. Moss made a list of volunteers who take two-hour shifts walking the length of the levee looking for leaks.

Gary Moody, an Army Corps of Engineers deputy area commander, said the levee is holding up fine and will come down in stages as the water recedes, first off Highway 25 and then Highway 74. He didn't know late Saturday when that will be.

The Mississippi River, at 45.6 feet in Cape Girardeau Saturday, is expected to crest at 46 feet today and then drop to 44.5 by Tuesday.

The water was less than 2 feet up on the 6-foot levee Saturday. Jeff Followell easily steered a johnboat along it after his grocery-shopping trip to Chaffee, Mo. He left his car parked on Highway 25.

"I hope I'm not still doing this in two or three days," he said. "But for now, it's fun. I'm having a ball."

But while Followell's house south of Highway 74 was protected by 7,700 sandbags, Gov. Bob Holden asked the Bush administration Friday to declare 37 counties disaster areas as a result of recent storms, high water and tornadoes.

Holden requested that 22 of these counties be made eligible for individual assistance. The counties include Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Carter, Iron, Madison, St. Francois, Stoddard, Perry, Butler, Scott, Ste. Genevieve and Wayne.

hhall@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 121

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