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Bracing for high water

Mid-Missourians pull together to lay sandbags and hold back anticipated floodwaters
Wednesday, May 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:54 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
ROCHEPORT: From left, Dave Morgenstern, Ryan Stoneciphe-Fisher and Bryan Tisdale build a wall of sandbags to protect a house from being inundated by the rising Missouri River on Tuesday. There were about 70 volunteers in the town Tuesday to help fill sandbags and make barriers.

Samuel Prather was born in 1993, the same year as the worst flood in Missouri’s history. He doesn’t remember the great floods that took place that year and in 1995, but he wasn’t going to miss this one.

Samuel was among about 70 volunteers who helped fill sandbags and make barriers between the Missouri River and the Katy Trail at Rocheport on Tuesday in anticipation of flood crests later in the week. Heavy rains over the past several days in northwest Missouri, combined with saturated soil in the lower Missouri River watershed, prompted the National Weather Service to predict river crests far above flood stage along the entire river. Those forecasts, which included expected rainfall, were revised downward somewhat on Tuesday but could grow more dire if rainfall amounts exceed expectations.

The rising waters by Tuesday already had closed a handful of Boone County roads, flooded a campground in Huntsdale, prompted riverside residents to evacuate or move their belongings to higher ground, and sparked volunteer sandbagging efforts in Rocheport, Huntsdale and Hartsburg that looked as if they would continue for days.

Volunteers first swung into action Tuesday in Rocheport, where Samuel, dressed in his work jeans and camouflage ball cap, held nylon sandbags open so Tony Valentine, of Columbia, could fill them up.

“Didn’t you hear them? We get paid by the bag,” Samuel joked to his partner, whom he had met just minutes before.

On the other side of the sand pile, Samuel’s brother, Joshua, 15, filled bags with Susan DeWitt, of Boonville. Joshua and Samuel, who live on Rocheport Gravel Road north of U.S. 40, are home-schooled with their five siblings. Joshua said his mom had heard on the radio Tuesday morning about the need for volunteers. He and his brother wanted to help.

“Our mom dropped us off, because I’m 15 and don’t have a license,” Joshua said. “I’ll call her when we get done or just work until dark.”

Joshua and Samuel joined workers from Rocheport, Columbia, Boonville and the surrounding area. Together, they filled nearly 20,000 sandbags and placed them around homes near the river, where rising waters threatened to cause the most damage.

On Monday, the National Weather Service had predicted the Missouri River to crest at 34 feet in Boonville by Friday evening, which would be about 13 feet above flood stage. Doug Westhoff, assistant chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District, said that prediction prompted a meeting of firefighters, law enforcement, representatives of the Boone County Public Works Department and other groups on Monday night. By Tuesday afternoon, the weather service had revised that prediction to call for a crest of 33.3 feet by midnight Friday.

“If the water reaches its projected 34 feet, this flood would fall between (the damage of) ’93 and ’95,” Westhoff said.

At Jefferson City, the next monitoring site for river levels, the Big Muddy was forecast to crest on Saturday evening at 32.9 feet, nearly 10 feet above flood stage.

There are not enough people or time to build barriers along all the low spots of the Katy Trail, Westhoff said. The sandbags will serve as barriers for individual homes, while crews will use heavy equipment to place concrete barriers along the trail.

Linda Haus of Columbia, who said she enjoys the trail and visiting Rocheport, lent a hand Tuesday, just as she did in Hartsburg in 1995.

“I remember it was horrible,” she said of the flood 12 years ago. “We were trying to help save a church.”

Haus, who works for the Department of Social Services, said she called a Columbia radio station to challenge all the state employees who had Truman’s birthday off to join her.

DeWitt, a forester for the Missouri Department of Conservation, was among those with the day off. She helped in similar efforts in St. Charles, along the Missouri River, and Old Monroe, along the Mississippi River, in 1993.

“Not a single sandbag wall we built that year held,” DeWitt said. “There was just too much pressure.”

She said this made her hesitant to help build barriers again in 1995, but she hopes the work Tuesday in Rocheport will do some good.

“I guess (I’ll be here) until whenever we’re done, it gets dark or the water’s too high, and we have to leave,” DeWitt said.

The city of Columbia’s Office of Volunteer Services provided gloves, bug repellent, sunscreen and water for the Rocheport volunteers. Leigh Nutter, coordinator for Volunteer Services, said they will probably do the same today in Hartsburg.

Farther downstream

About six miles downriver from Rocheport, the folks in Huntsdale were tense.

“The river is looking really full,” said Kenny Cook, owner of Katfish Katy’s. “It looks like it’s going to get out.”

The restaurant's upper and lower campground were closed on Tuesday, and all but a few sites in the lower section of the campground were under water by this morning. A boat ramp at Katfish Katy's was reportedly still usable today.

The town of about 30 people was doing what it could to turn back the tide.

“There are already some people sandbagging (culverts),” Cook said, adding that “if it starts raining, we’ll have to start pumping water back out of those culverts and levees.”

Cook was optimistic this event wouldn’t approach the calamity of 1993.

“It’s not going to be the Flood of 1993,” Cook said. “But it depends on what the weather does.”

Division Chief Gale Blomenkamp, spokesman for the fire district, said the levee at Huntsdale should protect the town.

“We’ve got culverts blocked to prevent water from backing up into the town,” he said. “Their levees are about 35 or 40 feet, so we believe they’re in good shape.”

Throughout the day, the fire district and Boone County Sheriff’s Department personnel were making preparations and monitoring developments along the river.

“We’re keeping a close watch on the roads,” Boone County Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Ewing said. “At this point, anywhere along the river is a trouble spot.”

The Columbia/Boone County Office of Emergency Management said Tuesday afternoon that parts of three roads were closed because of high water. They included Smith Hatchery Road north of Cooper’s Landing, Route N south of Cooper’s Landing and Providence Landing at the dead end of Old Plank Road. Cooper’s Landing, a riverside store and boat ramp, was also closed. More closures were expected as the water rises.

At Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, the possibility of a major flood elicited little concern.

“I’m not sure it presents many dangers so long as people know not to drive in if the roads are washed over,” said Tim James, a wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. In fact, James said, the parking lot overlooking the river saw a steady stream of visitors Tuesday.

The wetlands are protected by two levees: one 29.5 feet high to protect crops and another, 32 feet high, to protect the area’s wetlands. James said the crests called for would breach the first levee but leave the wetlands unscathed.

Hartsburg

Jeanette Crawford has lived in Hartsburg for 22 years and runs the Globe Hotel on Second Street.

After the Missouri River flooded in 1993, she lived in an upstairs bedroom of her bed and breakfast for a year and a half, using a microwave and slow cooker she had set up in her bathroom. Since then, she’s kept her basement stocked with cardboard boxes just in case of another flood. On Monday, she found out she would have to use them.

“When I found out, I was not happy,” she said. “It was like I was sick to my stomach.”

Crawford’s bed and breakfast is one of 12 households and five businesses Mayor Nancy Grant said are working to evacuate or move belongings to higher ground.

Hartsburg held a meeting Monday to make preparations for the flooding. Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey, Presiding Commissioner Ken Pearson and Chip Estabrooks of the Boone County Public Works Department were among the 41 people who attended to help develop a plan to combat the flood.

In addition to the evacuations, sandbags will be piled along the levee of the creek that runs west of First Street from Peace United Church of Christ down to the Katy Trail, said Lt. Larry Madore of the Southern Boone County Fire Protection District. A command post is being set up at the fire station.

Donations of water and food have come in to Station 18, Madore said. Radio communication was being set up so firefighters can connect to other officials along the river.

On Tuesday, as pickups with their beds filled with boxes and furniture traveled out of town on Route A, Crawford worked with two of her sons to move all her belongings to the second floor and attic of her house or to the two horse trailers parked outside. The rooms on the second floor were packed with furniture. Bookcases lined the hallways.

Columbia

The city of Columbia isn’t entirely immune from the effects of the coming flood. Jill Stedem, a spokeswoman for the Public Works Department, said crews have already begun to take steps necessary to minimize damage at the city’s waste-water treatment wetlands.

City sewer engineer Steve Hunt said crews will open the gates of two of the city’s four wetlands units, which will flood the wetlands cells in a planned and controlled way.

“Because of where they are situated, there is not any way to prevent them from being flooded,” Hunt said. “We’re preparing to open a floodgate right now, to let water into the wetlands so the water level inside will be same as the outside.”

That procedure prevents damage to the wetland cells’ clay bottoms.

“Once it crests ­— it gets as high as it can go — then we’ll close the gate and pump water like we normally would and keep the water inside the same as outside,” Hunt said. He expects the water to crest by Friday and be back to normal levels next week.

Keeping levels the same prevents water from slipping under the units and causing sand boils that damage the clay liners. Once the river levels retreat, the river water and treated waste water will be pumped to Eagle Bluffs as normal.

“Our maintenance guys watch the river levels very closely, especially this time of year,” Hunt said. “They’re anticipating the rise, and they’re prepared. “

Water and Light Department spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said the city’s water treatment plant near McBaine will be safe, given the construction of a 40-foot levee around the plant in the 1990s.

“The plant itself should be able to continue operations,” Kacprowicz said, but an open house at the plant that had been scheduled for today has been canceled, given the likelihood that Route K south of Columbia will be flooded.

Missourian reporters Katie Allen, Emily Ristow, Matt Harris, Julie O’Brien, Luke Thompson, Cajsa Collin and M.B. Pell contributed to this report.


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