Missouri town braces itself for flood

Monday, March 24, 2008 | 6:37 p.m. CDT; updated 3:25 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Danny Sanders, with the St. Francis Levy District of Missouri, looks out over the Mississippi River flood wall at floating debris near the Aztar Casino as a crew of teenage boys fills sandbags in Caruthersville on Monday. The river is scheduled to crest on Thursday without threatening the Southeastern Missouri town.

CARUTHERSVILLE — Dawn Long just returned home from helping her father clean the mud and gunk from his flooded home in another part of the state. She’s survived earthquakes, floods and a tornado two years ago that destroyed half of Caruthersville, her hometown.

So for Long, 38, the rising Mississippi River in this Missouri Bootheel community is little more than a curiosity.

“I’ve seen it get this high before,” Long said Monday as she walked along the downtown river levee with her young niece, nephew and their friend. “Right now I’m not too worried about it. Besides, if it gets too bad I’ve got a pontoon boat in my backyard.”

A week after the rains came to Missouri, causing floods that killed five and forcing thousands from their homes, life is slowly returning to normal in most locations.

But a few towns are just now seeing the worst. The Mississippi River crested Monday at Cape Girardeau at just over 41 feet — a foot shy of what the National Weather Service deems serious flooding. A flood wall protects the city’s historic downtown, so damage was mostly limited to agricultural land.

Other river towns farther south are in line for crests over the next few days, including Caruthersville. The river is projected to reach around 41 feet on Friday — 7 feet above flood stage.

On Monday, the town seemed ready. Hundreds of sandbags were placed at the eight open gates in the flood levee that separates the swiftly moving river from downtown. Danny Sanders, who works for the local levee district, was directing a small group of workers filling more bags.

Like a lot of people in Caruthersville, Sanders seemed unbothered by the rising river. After what happened two years ago, who could blame him?

On April 2, 2006, a powerful F3 tornado ripped through Caruthersville and nearly ripped apart the town of 6,700 residents. More than 240 homes were destroyed; another 375 were badly damaged. Some businesses closed, never to reopen.

Signs of the twister remain evident today. High school students continue to meet in trailers — their lovely old brick building is essentially ruined. Dead trees with broken branches still sit in front of now-vacant homes.

Sanders was among those who lost their homes, though he has since rebuilt.

“What I said was if a tornado came again I’d pack up and leave — I won’t do it no more,” Sanders, 48, said.

“But a flood — you can stop it right here,” he said, pointing at the levee. “You’ve got a chance against a flood and know what you have to do. A tornado comes at night or when you can’t prepare for it.”

Long agreed. Her home survived the ‘06 tornado, but many relatives weren’t so lucky.

“My mother’s house was a total loss,” she said. “My sister lost her house. My aunt’s home was damaged pretty badly.”

The expected flooding this week at Caruthersville should have no such consequences. The levee protects virtually the entire town. The Casino Aztar, which brings in thousands of visitors each week, should continue without interruption. The Bunge grain elevator sits on the river side of the levee, but the company has built its own wall to keep the water out. Some low-lying areas just outside of Caruthersville will get wet, but few people live there.

In fact, the rising river was just something for sight-seeing on Monday. Dozens of people walked along the levee and peered over sandbags at the open gates just for a glimpse of the muddy river and rush of debris it sent speeding past town.

David Smith and his young son, David Jr., waded out to a pile of debris along the riverfront and grabbed a few souvenirs that came from who knows where — a baseball, a mailbox, half a life jacket.

“I’ve been here a lot of years,” Smith said. “When it floods, we just go out and see what we can see. It’s no big deal.”

Long agreed. She lives just two blocks inside the levee but said her biggest concern wasn’t flooding or even another tornado. Caruthersville sits virtually atop the New Madrid fault line. After a tornado and now a flood, she lives in fear of the next big earthquake.

“We get a rumble now and then and it really makes me nervous,” she said.

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