News of lower-than-predicted river cresting not of comfort to all

Friday, June 20, 2008 | 11:40 a.m. CDT; updated 10:55 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Mark Rowland wades through rising floodwater near his home Thursday, June 19, 2008, in Foley, Mo. The tiny Mississippi River town could see several homes under water following a levee break Thursday afternoon, one of three levee breaks during a 24-hour period in Lincoln County.

FOLEY — For the second time in 15 years, Keith Aubuchon found himself packing his belongings and evacuating his home here to escape a “100 year” flood of the Mississippi River. He returned and remodeled his home after the flood of 1993. This time, he doesn’t know if it will be worth coming back.

“This is my second flood. I don’t think there will be a third,” Aubuchon said as he drove a pickup truck loaded with a washing machine and other belongings out of his subdivision. Floodwaters rapidly filled the roads, yards and gullies behind him just hours after a levee breached north of town. Authorities estimate much of Foley will be flooded by the weekend.

Three Mississippi River levees broke Thursday in Lincoln County, sending a creeping wave of water toward the small town of Foley and causing more concern in nearby Winfield.

Authorities were checking levees by helicopter this morning, but it appeared that no other significant breaches occurred overnight in Lincoln County. They said between 300 and 350 homes in the county have been flooded. Gov. Matt Blunt was to tour the county’s flooding and give a briefing after noon today.

Eighty percent of levees along the river were overflowing this morning, but inland levees protecting Elsberry and eastern Winfield were still holding strong and would likely hold back floodwaters during the river’s crest, said Andy Binder, spokesman for Lincoln County Emergency Management.

“It looks as if we’re going to be able to save eastern Winfield,” he said.

Floodwaters spilled onto Missouri 79 north of Winfield, though the road remained open.

Stagnant water covered yards and roads and the neighborhoods of eastern Foley, where most residents were evacuated by Thursday.

While the situation worsened in Lincoln County, it improved elsewhere along the river. The National Weather Service on Thursday significantly lowered crest predictions. The revised projections came after several levee breaks in Illinois, including one on Wednesday near Meyer, Ill., that potentially could inundate 17,000 acres of Illinois farmland with water that would have been flowing south.

The news means many towns along the river won’t see the record-level flood crests they expected.

In towns like Canton, hundreds of volunteers spent the last week fortifying the city’s levee with sandbags to stave off the flood. On Tuesday night, river water lapped at the top of the wall, and some feared it might overflow. Authorities nervously awaited a crest expected to hit late this week, and were overjoyed when news came that the worst appeared to be behind them.

“We are very, very excited about the new crest predictions,” Canton’s emergency management director Jeff McReynolds said in an e-mail to residents. “We will still monitor the condition of the levee closely and be extremely cautious, but it’s great news.”

The relief came at a cost for communities where levees failed. The first levee breached in Lincoln County on Wednesday near Winfield, about 50 miles north of St. Louis. Another broke northeast of Winfield around 1:30 p.m. Thursday. A little over an hour later, a levee break close to nearby Elsberry and sent water toward Foley, a town of about 200 residents. The fourth breach, northeast of Elsberry, happened early Thursday evening.

The breaches spilled water into sparsely populated areas, Binder said, but the southward flows were expected to put increasing pressure on a series of inland levees protecting the towns of Winfield and Elsberry. To help raise the levees an additional two feet, dozens of volunteers filled tens of thousands of sandbags in Winfield on Thursday. The bags were piled onto pallets and shipped to the levees where roughly 150 National Guard members stacked them on top of the existing walls.

“It’s about the most rewarding thing I’ve done in a long time,” said David Hays, a computer programmer from Chesterfield, Mo., who took time off work to help fill sandbags. “I was filling sandbags until I couldn’t move my arms. Then I held bags until my shoulders hurt. Then I became a supervisor.”

Unlike other towns in the area, Foley is not protected by a secondary levee, and much of the town would likely be flooded, Binder said.

Rising water or not, John Watson wasn’t moving out. Flooding in 1993 attracted looters once the waters receded. Watson, 49, who’s been out of work, said he doesn’t want to risk thieves stealing copper from his house. He’s pitched a tent on the roof and said he’s staying put.

“I’m not worried about drowning,” he said. “I’ve been up here for four days. The water is creeping along the fields. It’s getting real close right now.”

Many Winfield residents moved to higher ground. Opinions were mixed among Main Street merchants about whether the flood protection efforts would pay off.

Faith Burgess was staying put at her store, Second Time Around Antiques, confident the levee would hold. But next door, Randy Meyerpeter was packing up merchandise from his Tin Lizzie Antique Shop and moving, worried that even if the influx of water didn’t topple the levee it might cause sewage to back up.

“It just ain’t worth the chance,” he said.

Until Thursday, crests were expected to be at or near record levels set in 1993 at Canton, Hannibal, Saverton, Louisiana, Clarksville and Winfield. But the latest projections are that those towns will see crests 1 foot to 3 feet lower than previously predicted, starting Sunday to the north through Tuesday at Winfield.

The new prediction shows St. Louis cresting at 37.3 feet today, well short of the 49.58-foot mark in 1993.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Kramper said river towns aren’t safe yet.

“There will still be a lot of places with major flooding,” Kramper said. “Even at the levels we’re expecting now, a lot of places are threatened.”

Sandbagging continued in Clarksville as the picturesque town tried to stop the water from the small downtown filled with arts shops and antique stores.

In Louisiana, Mo., Mayor Don Giltner said about 10 businesses and 20 to 30 homes had water damage in the town of 3,900.

“The good part, if there is a good part, is that we had advance notice,” Giltner said. “We knew it was coming; we knew when it would get here, and when it’ll leave. We’re hanging in there.”

The flooding isn’t expected to be as bad in St. Louis, but it was causing trouble. The city’s annual Fourth of July festival, Fair St. Louis, and the Live on the Levee concert series, are moving to a new location. Setup has to begin in late June and organizers aren’t sure floodwaters will have subsided enough by then.

Like many flood-ravaged spots in the Midwest, people in the Winfield area were pulling together.

Terry and Mary Hardin of Winfield lost their home in the Great Flood of 1993. Threatened again, the couple and their 10-year-old daughter left behind their mobile home and moved in with their trash man and his family in nearby Troy.

Ken and Kim Knickmeyer barely knew the Hardin family but extended the offer after learning they had to evacuate. Knickmeyer’s family fixed up the basement, where the Hardins are now staying.

“This just needed to be done,” Kimberly Knickmeyer said. “They needed help, and we had the space.”

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