Floods closing roads, threatening levees throughout northern Missouri

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 | 4:08 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — The all-too-familiar ritual of filling sandbags, evacuating homes and moving farm equipment to higher ground played out Wednesday in two flooded corners of Missouri.

The Missouri River remained high in northwest Missouri. Dozens of roads were closed. More than 100 homes were evacuated in Holt County alone. Water was near the top of levees, and a few were overtopped or destroyed by the murky current.

Meanwhile, in northeast Missouri, the Mississippi River was rising quickly, the result of heavy rain in Iowa and northern Missouri early this week. Hannibal installed flood gates to protect its historic downtown. Route 136/61 at the Missouri-Iowa border was closed.

The two big rivers have been at a high level for months. Ground became saturated late last year due to rain and snow, and every time the water level starts to drop, more downpours arrive to send the river levels back up again.

"Once the ground becomes saturated, rain hits the lowest area and then runs straight into the river," National Weather Service meteorologist Butch Dye said. "It's just been an unusually wet season."

Northwest Missouri has taken the worst of it, largely due to rain in Nebraska that washed down the Missouri and periodic local downpours.

Gov. Jay Nixon flew in a Missouri National Guard Blackhawk helicopter over the flooded areas Tuesday and met with emergency responders and volunteers working to protect the small community of Fortescue in Holt County.

Nixon authorized the use of 37 inmates from a prison in St. Joseph to help sandbag around Interstate 29 near Mound City.

"We must protect homes, farms, businesses and transportation routes and help with recovery efforts wherever they are needed," Nixon said in a statement.

The Missouri State Emergency Management Agency reported that Holt County had 40 roads closed, 200 displaced residents and at least 100 homes with water in them. A private levee broke Tuesday west of Corning, forcing a few families to evacuate. Missouri River water poured over thousands of acres of farmland near the town of Big Lake.

Atchison County recommended that everyone living in the river bottoms get out. Emergency management director Rhonda Wiley said about 150 people were sandbagging to fortify levees protecting several small towns — Watson, Langdon, Phelps City. About 50 homes in the county were evacuated.

Dozens of farmers have moved machinery to higher grounds and hauled away grain.

"Most of the people, if they haven't evacuated (their homes), they're boxed up and ready to go," Wiley said of residents in the river bottoms. "These people that live out in that area — they're very self-sufficient. They're prepared. They always plan for this."

The National Weather Service reported that the Missouri River was at 42.9 feet Wednesday at Brownville in Atchison County — the second-highest reading ever, topped only by the 44.3 mark set in 1993. The good news was the river was projected to begin a slow descent.

The Missouri was 8.2 feet above flood stage in St. Joseph and expected to rise another 1.4 feet by Saturday. City officials say that would be just below the level where sewage would have to be pumped directly into the river.

The Missouri was falling in Boonville, Jefferson City, Washington and St. Charles, but still several feet above flood stage.

On the other side of the state, the Mississippi was 5-6 feet above flood stage in Canton, Hannibal, Louisiana and Clarksville on Wednesday and expected to crest later this week.

Downtown Hannibal, including the Mark Twain sites, is protected by a levee. Floodwaters predicted to reach about 7 feet above technical flood stage are not expected to cause significant problems.

Flooding at St. Louis kept the President Casino closed, and it may not reopen. The casino that sits on an aging riverboat had been scheduled to give up its license by July 1 anyway.

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