ST. LOUIS — Residents of the southeast Missouri town of Caruthersville braced Thursday for a flood crest expected to have the Mississippi River lapping at the top of the floodwall.
Even as most rivers were finally starting to recede in the flood-ravaged area, the worst was still expected to come in the town of 6,700 roughly halfway between St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn. Members of the Missouri National Guard were taking no chances, building not only a wall of sandbags to catch overflow if the wall is topped but also a series of earthen berms behind the sandbags.
"The berms will reinforce protection of the city by trapping the water after it crests over the sea wall," said National Guard Staff Sgt. Steven Anderson, who is helping coordinate the effort.
The river topped the previous record crest of 46 feet — set in 1937 — on Wednesday and stood at 47.2 feet by Thursday afternoon. It is expected to reach 49.5 feet Sunday, a half-foot below the top of the floodwall. Because Caruthersville is so flat, water could pour into much of the community if it gets past the permanent and temporary protections.
On Thursday, Gov. Jay Nixon requested a major disaster declaration from President Barack Obama, citing high winds, tornadoes and severe flooding in Missouri since April 19.
At Cape Girardeau, Missouri's second-largest town on the river behind only St. Louis, the Mississippi was at 43 feet Thursday after cresting at more than 46 feet earlier this week, just a couple of feet short of the all-time record.
The Black River at Poplar Bluff was at 16.8 feet Thursday and falling. It was expected to fall below the 16-foot flood stage on Saturday and continue dropping.
The flood has washed over tens of thousands of acres of farmland. The state's agriculture director, Jon Hagler, is in southeast Missouri on Thursday and Friday, meeting with farmers and the agriculture community to discuss how the state will help them recover.
"Agriculture is the backbone of Missouri's economy, and it's critical that we get farms in southeast Missouri moving forward again," Nixon said in a statement.
The most devastated area was Mississippi County, where the Army Corps of Engineers on Monday blasted a hole in the Birds Point levee to relieve flooding in Cairo, Ill., and other nearby towns. It worked, but the intentional breach sent a surge of deep water over 130,000 acres of farmland, water that could remain there for months.
Bruce Domazlicky, director of Southeast Missouri State University's Center for Economic and Business Research, said the breach flooded about one-half of all farm land under cultivation in the county. He estimated it will cost the county 522 jobs and $93.5 million in lost revenue in 2011.
Hundreds of businesses have also been hurt by the flood, both big and small.
St. Louis-based Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. has closed its casinos in both Caruthersville and Lula, Miss., because of flooding and will shut down another one, at Natchez, Miss., on Saturday unless the river level drops. Isle of Capri's casino in Davenport, Iowa, reopened Sunday after a 15-day closure.