Towns continue to add sandbags, and some evacuate as rivers rise.

Friday, May 11, 2007 | 1:25 a.m. CDT; updated 5:24 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

KANSAS CITY — Floodwaters rose still higher across northwest and central Missouri on Thursday, leading nervous residents to remove valuables from their homes and fill sandbags to protect river communities.

The flooding drowned small towns such as Big Lake in extreme northwest Missouri and shut down numerous businesses. The Missouri River had dropped a few inches Thursday near Craig, where inmates and National Guard members spent Wednesday sandbagging, trying to protect the water treatment plant, schools and an ethanol plant.

The water got within “a hillbilly’s whisker from going over in several places,” Holt County Sheriff Kirby Felumb said Thursday.

State officials said dozens of levees have been topped or breached since a weekend of drenching thunderstorms raised rivers and generated tornadoes that claimed 12 lives in Kansas.

The rain-swollen rivers and streams that make up the Missouri River system are cresting at different times as the water makes its way eastward toward St. Louis, where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi, said Suzanne Fortin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The heaviest flooding is expected in the northwest and central parts of the state, where portions of the Missouri, Platte and Grand rivers and their tributaries will likely be at flood stage or higher until at least the weekend. The Missouri River is able to handle more water to the east, where the channel is wider, said Suzanne Fortin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill.

Near-historic flood levels had been reached in some areas, causing some highway closures. Most of the compromised levees shield agricultural land, but at least seven nonfederal levees that protect towns had been breached or overtopped, said Brian Hauswirth, a spokeswoman for the State Emergency Management Agency.

No serious injuries or deaths had been reported, Hauswirth said.

During a briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center, Gov. Matt Blunt said the hardest-hit area was Holt County in far northwest Missouri, while noting that other communities have also been affected.

Blunt said the flooding has led to the evacuation of several hundred people and about 25 rescues by the Missouri State Water Patrol over the past few days. Joint state and federal damage assessment teams were being dispatched to 17 counties, the governor said, and about 100 Missouri National Guard members had been deployed around the state.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has prepared about 1.2 million sandbags, about 132,000 of which already had been distributed to help fight the flood by Wednesday, Blunt said.

In Holt County, the village of Big Lake was flooded Monday night and Tuesday after five levees on the nearby Missouri River and four smaller levees along the Tarkio River and Tarkio Creek were breached.

By Thursday, rooftops were all that could be seen of some of the 450 to 475 homes flooded in the village of Big Lake. Some rescues of pets were under way.

“We can’t do much for the property,” Felumb said. “There’s no need to let a family pet die if we have resources.”

Elsewhere, residents cleared valuables from their homes even as rivers and streams crested at lower-than-predicted levels in many spots. Many had lived through the 1993 floods, one of the most costly in U.S. history.

“It just makes you nervous when you’ve been through that,” said Saline County Sheriff Wally George.

Prisoners were filling sandbags Thursday at the prison in Boonville, and a crew of inmates had been sent to the Cooper County town of Wooldridge to stack the bags alongside a levy that protects the community from the Missouri River.

Although the water needed to rise more than a foot before it would overtop the levee, a few residents had evacuated as a precaution, Hauswirth said Thursday afternoon.

In Carroll County, about 15,000 acres of cropland were flooded and about 75 rural homes were surrounded with Missouri River water after a levee broke about seven miles south of Norborne. No water had entered the town of about 800 residents, and a stretch of railroad tracks was acting as a dam and keeping floodwaters from entering the nearby town of Carrollton, which has about 4,000 residents.

“Right now we are hoping we’ve about reached the crest of all of this,” said the county’s emergency management director, Harry Barnett. “There are crops that are going to have to be replanted, and levies are going to have to be rebuilt before the planting process can start again.”

A few homes were evacuated and roads closed in Atchison County, but residents largely avoided the flooding that neighboring Holt County experienced.

“I’m really thankful,” said Rhonda Wiley, the county’s emergency management director. “We dodged the bullet on this one.”

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