ST. LOUIS — Communities along rivers in the Midwest are bracing for what could be a whopper of a spring flood season, with the National Weather Service warning of a "high probability" of significant flooding along parts of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries.
"The ground really hasn't recovered because it got cold and what would have been running off never had the chance," Weather Service hydrologist Mark Fuchs said Monday. "Once it warms up we're going to have a fairly high risk of flooding."
Possible trouble spots include the Red River Valley in the Dakotas, the upper Mississippi River from Iowa through at least the St. Louis area and portions of the Missouri River. Many tributaries of the bigger rivers could also rise above flood stage.
That's worrying for Mississippi River towns like Keokuk, Iowa, Quincy, Ill. and Hannibal and Canton in Missouri. They've been through this often enough to take the news in stride — but with a wary eye toward the Big Muddy.
"If water got in there, downtown would never come back again," said Canton Mayor Terry Fretwell.
Fretwell knows the importance of the earth and rock levee that protects the business district in the community of 2,500 residents. But he and emergency director Jeff McReynolds will map out a plan this week just in case another big flood hits like it did in 1993, 1995 and 2008.
Canton drew national attention two years ago when hundreds of volunteers worked around the clock for weeks to add boards and dirt to the top of the levee, barely keeping the Mississippi at bay.
About 70 miles south in Clarksville, Mayor Jo Anne Smiley said the town of 500 residents has a new plan in place.
In 2008, Clarksville barely survived the flood thanks to help from the Missouri National Guard and volunteers who put up a makeshift levee around downtown. Now, the town has hired an engineering firm to help with a plan that calls for a metal product to serve as the base for a temporary levee, then covered in plastic and sandbags.
"We're getting ready," Smiley said. "There are red flags all around."
The flood of 2008 topped record 1993 levels in parts of Iowa and fell just short in northeast Missouri. Fuchs said indicators right now are more ominous than they were at this time two years ago.
Those factors include significant winter snow in northern states like North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, and heavy rain last fall in parts of Missouri, Illinois and Iowa. That water became trapped in the soil when the ground froze.
It didn't help that parts of the upper Midwest got significant snow over the weekend, while the lower tier of Missouri and Illinois was drenched in rain. As a result, some rivers are already above flood stage.
In Missouri, the South Grand River at Urich was more than 3 feet above flood stage. The Lamine River at Otterville was 4 feet over its banks. Farm land was flooded and a few roads and highways were under water. Agricultural land was flooded along the Cuivre River near Troy in Lincoln County.
Missouri River communities were spared major flooding in 2008 but conditions are worrisome this year. Ground is saturated through the Dakotas, Nebraska and into Missouri. That could spell trouble not only along the Missouri River but for Mississippi River towns at St. Louis and to the south, where the two big rivers merge.
"St. Louis had pretty bad flooding in 2008 but we were saved because the Missouri was mostly minor flooding," Fuchs said.
A dry spring could offset the runoff concerns, but Fuchs said local emergency managers should prepare for the worst, making sure they have a plan in place, resources on hand and checked levees for trouble spots.
"I want to refine our preparation to make it more efficient," Fretwell said. "Volunteers are great. How we can use those volunteers to maximize them is what we need to prepare for."