SIKESTON — The flood of 2011 has proved troublesome for virtually every river town in southeast Missouri — and even for dozens of communities situated far from the waterways.
More rain fell Wednesday, creating new worries as many rivers neared their crest. For much of southern Missouri, it was at least the sixth straight day of rain, and some parts of the region have received 15 inches in that time, said Mary Lamm, a National Weather Service hydrologist.
Rising water has already forced many people from their homes, including in Poplar Bluff, where the Black River surged over its levee at about 35 spots Wednesday. At least 1,000 people have been displaced since Monday, about a quarter of them staying at a Red Cross shelter set up at Black River Coliseum. More than 100 pets were also at the shelter.
Butler County Sheriff Mark Dobbs reported 120 water rescues over a two-day period in the Poplar Bluff area. The levee continued to hold, but water flowing over the top was creeping into an increasing number of homes.
"It was bad all along," Dobbs said. "It's just getting worse."
It also was getting worse along the Mississippi River, especially in the Missouri Bootheel region and just north.
Two dozen homes were in jeopardy in the tiny town of Commerce, but many residents seemed prepared. The small town floods so often that some homes have their own concrete flood walls.
In nearby Benton, volunteers filled sandbags, including shifts of students from a nearby high school. The seniors started the morning, followed by juniors. Sophomores and freshmen arrived next.
"They'll get smaller as the day goes on," one volunteer joked.
The work in Benton showed the extent of this year's flood. It isn't even on the Mississippi, but sits a couple of miles to the west.
Southeast Missouri below Cape Girardeau is a delta — thousands of square miles of land at sea level that tends to be swampy by nature anyway. River water has combined with flooded creeks and drainage backup, creating lakes where fields once stood. Now, in spots along Interstate 55, water spreads as far as the eye can see.
That includes portions of Sikeston, which sits a few miles from the Mississippi. Backwater from drainage ditches has caused significant flooding, threatening 60 homes in an area west of town.
Dozens of volunteers gathered at the town's rodeo grounds Wednesday to fill sandbags. The local Jaycees came up with a plan to expedite things: Volunteers shoveled sand into an upside-down highway cone, which funneled the sand into bags.
Lee Ann Ponder, 38, had her 15- and 11-year-old sons with her shoveling. They live in one of the endangered homes.
"It's getting close," Ponder said, wiping sweat from her brow and running a hand across her sand-stained T-shirt. "The water just won't let up. I'm hoping it stops soon."
The water was too much for a small levee near Dutchtown that broke on Tuesday, flooding a few homes to the south. However, a makeshift levee hurriedly built over the past two days in Dutchtown appeared to be holding. That levee, made of gravel topped with plastic and sandbags, protects around 30 homes and two businesses.
Many school districts in southeast Missouri have closed indefinitely, largely because so many roads are closed children can't get to school.
The Missouri National Guard has more than 500 troops spread around the region, including 200 in Poplar Bluff.
"This is an important mission," task force commander Col. Wendul Hagler said. "It's about more than a few people. It's about the livelihood of an entire community."
The Army Corps of Engineers said the agency will wait until this weekend to decide whether it's necessary to punch a hole in Missouri's Birds Point levee to protect nearby Cairo, Ill., from the rising Mississippi. Missouri officials say the move would flood 130,000 acres of prime farmland and perhaps 100 rural homes.
There were bright spots. The Black River appeared to be dropping in Poplar Bluff. Rivers north of Interstate 44 were leveling off. And sunny skies — finally — were in the forecast for Thursday and Friday.
But Lamm, the weather service hydrologist, warned it was too early for towns protected by levees to assume the worst was over.
"It's still going to be a lot of strain on a lot of those levees, even though we're getting that final rain out of here," she said.