Midwestern river cities brace for floodwaters
JIM SALTER and JIM SUHR
Apr 20, 2013 at 2:43 PM
CLARKSVILLE, Mo. (AP) — The fast-rising Mississippi River was making travel difficult Saturday, both on the river and for those simply trying to get across it.
The Mississippi, Missouri and other Midwestern rivers in at least six states have surged since torrential rains drenched the region over the last few days. At least two deaths are blamed on flash flooding and a third was suspected, while crews in Indiana were searching for a man whose car was swept away.
The National Weather Service predicted what it characterizes as "major" flooding on the Mississippi from the Quad Cities through just north of St. Louis by this weekend, with similar projections further south into early next week. Some smaller rivers are expected to see record flooding.
People in and around Louisiana, Mo., about 95 miles north of St. Louis, were facing potential travel woes after the Champ Clark Bridge was closed Saturday due to water overtaking the approach on the Illinois side. It was the second Mississippi River crossing to close in two days — one of the two bridges at Quincy, Ill., closed on Friday.
To get across the river, people in the Louisiana, Mo., area either had to drive 35 miles north to Hannibal, Mo., or 50-plus miles south to suburban St. Louis. Penny Scranton's normal 13-minute commute from Rockport, Ill., to the BP convenience store in Louisiana, Mo., turned into an hour-and-a-half. The store manager chose to look at the bright side: Her employer pays her mileage.
"There are others worse off," she shrugged.
If crossing the river was difficult, traveling it was essentially impossible. The water was moving too swiftly, prompting the Army Corps of Engineers to close most of the locks between the Quad Cities and near St. Louis. Barge traffic was at a standstill, slowing the movement of items such as coal, grain and other goods.
Downriver from Louisiana, farmers, National Guardsmen — even prison inmates — pitched in Saturday to help hold back the bulging Mississippi River from Clarksville, Mo. The skies had cleared, but murky river water was creeping dangerously close to the quaint downtown of antique stores and artist shops.
Filled sandbags were stacked between the river and downtown and volunteers, including nearly three dozen prisoners from Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City, were reinforcing the makeshift levee to protect against seepage.
Clarksville's flood stage — a somewhat arbitrary term that the NWS defines as the point when "water surface level begins to create a hazard to lives, property or commerce" — is 25 feet. At midday Saturday, the river was at 34.1 feet and expected to rise another 2 feet by Sunday.
Roger Dowell has twice lost mobile homes to flooding, and his latest one is again surrounded by water. On Saturday morning, he needed a front-end loader to get to and from his home.
"It came up fast — faster than normal," Dowell, a city maintenance worker, said. His wife was inside with the family dog, packing up family photos and other keepsakes.
"She's paranoid. I'm not worried about it," Dowell said, smiling.
Mississippi River levels vary greatly but are typically highest in the spring, so minor flooding is not uncommon. But when river levels exceed flood stage by several feet, serious problems can occur.
What's been unusual is the Mississippi's swift rise — nearly 10 feet in a 36-hour period late in the week at Quincy, Hannibal, Mo., and other towns.
Smaller rivers across the Midwest were swelling, too. In the Chicago suburbs, the Des Plaines River was causing flooding worries. The northern Illinois town of Marseilles remained on edge after seven barges broke free on the Illinois River late Thursday and struck a dam. And heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar will shut down its East Peoria, Ill., factory Sunday as the Illinois River approaches a forecasted 30-foot crest early next week.
Waterways in central Indiana were increasingly swollen after record rainfall Thursday night into Friday, and more than 200 people were forced from their homes. State officials were closely monitoring the Wabash River in Tippecanoe County, expected to crest more than 14 feet above flood stage on Saturday, the highest level since 1958.
In Burlington, Iowa, city workers and volunteers built a sandbag barrier around Burlington Memorial Auditorium on Friday, and several streets were closed. The Mississippi was expected to crest nearly 7 feet above flood stage Sunday night or early Monday.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., high water forced the evacuation of the Courtyard Marriott Hotel and an apartment building on Saturday.
Two people have died due to flooding. A 64-year-old man's car was swept away and submerged Friday night after he tried to cross a flooded road north of Indianapolis. Authorities were searching for a second motorist in the same area, as officers heard someone yell and found a truck, but not the driver.
On Thursday, a De Soto, Mo., woman died while trying to cross a flooded road. A decomposed body was found in a flooded Oak Brook, Ill., creek on Thursday, but it wasn't clear if that death was flood-related.
After the devastating Mississippi River floods of 1993, the government bought out thousands of homes, tore them down and banned development there. New and larger levees have been built, and flood walls reinforced.
A few places have opted against permanent flood protection, including Clarksville, where many people simply don't want a wall or levee.
"We kind of like the view," alderwoman Sue Lindemann said.