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Small towns on Mississippi River prepare as flood moves south

Monday, June 3, 2013 | 4:14 p.m. CDT; updated 5:46 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 3, 2013

ST. LOUIS — Volunteers were busy stacking sandbags in the tiny Missouri town of Dutchtown on Monday as the rain-swollen Mississippi River threatens to send water into about a third of the town's homes and make another nearby town an island.

Heavy rain over the past several days has spurred a second round of spring flooding this year in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. The Mississippi and Missouri rivers have crested in many places north and west of St. Louis — but to the south, the worst was yet to come.

In Dutchtown, a community of about 100 people, volunteers joined homeowners in adding to makeshift levees left standing from April flooding along the Mississippi. Although floodwater never reached the levees then, it seems certain it will this time.

"We're trying to do what we can before it gets here," said Doyle Parmer, Dutchtown's emergency management coordinator. He said 13 homes are in danger, including three rental properties he owns because he moved to Cape Girardeau.

Dutchtown has for years sought a government buyout that town leaders say is caught up in red tape. Under buyout programs, the government purchases homes in the flood plain with the agreement that the land will be used only as green space such as a park.

"I'll take 60 cents on the dollar," Parmer said. "C'mon, you live where it floods. You need to get out, lick your wounds, count your losses and go elsewhere."

High water could make nearby Allenville, population 117, an island. Just one county road is expected to remain passable at Allenville, so if it floods, the small town would be reachable only by boat, said Cape Girardeau County spokesman Eric McGowen. But he said locals were taking things in stride.

"The residents are pretty good at taking care of themselves," he said.

The scenic Illinois tourist town of Grafton, near St. Louis, was largely isolated with the key highway closed. The Mississippi is expected to crest in the town of about 700 residents early Tuesday.

"Grafton isn't closed — just parts of it are underwater," Police Chief Chris Sullivan said. "There's 12 feet of water standing in large parts of town."

Yet Sullivan said locals weren't panicking, given Grafton's history. The latest predicted crest of 11 feet above flood stage would match that of the 2008 flood, when 20 homes and businesses were flooded, but floods have been worse, including in 1993 during the most severe flooding ever along much of the Mississippi.

"I think we're a little bit weary," Sullivan said. "But the people of Grafton are really resilient, and they're used to dealing with this. They make a living off the river, and they understand they have to take the bad with the good."

Nearby Alton, Ill., also had flood problems, with the Mississippi River spillover flooding the riverfront and roads near the Con Agra plant. The Argosy Alto Casino is closed due to high water and is expected to remain so until Thursday.

In northern Missouri, however, the river was going down. Clarksville stayed mostly dry thanks to a sandbag-and-tarp levee built in April that was reinforced by volunteers in recent days. Several businesses and a few homes took on water in Louisiana, Mo., but the Champ Clark Bridge, which spans the river and connects to Illinois, reopened as water on the Illinois approach receded. Its closing forced commuters to drive an extra 35 miles to the next closest river crossing.

St. Louis was expecting a crest Monday. No significant problems were expected but the normally busy road that runs between the river and the Gateway Arch was closed.

Corps of Engineers spokesman Mike Petersen said two Mississippi River levees have been overtopped during this round of flooding, both near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Petersen said about 20 residents were affected.

The Missouri River was starting to drop in hard-hit Missouri towns including Jefferson City, Hermann and Washington.

Nathan Nickolaus, city administrator in Jefferson City, said a few homes and businesses were damaged but levees held, even as water lapped near the tops. One of those levees protected the Jefferson City airport, which remained open, though several plane owners moved their aircraft out.

Nickolaus credited buyouts of homeowners over the past several years that have essentially cleared out the flood plain in Missouri's Capitol city.

"Years ago this would have been a major event with a lot of homes and businesses impacted, people stranded," Nickolaus said.


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