Levees strain in Midwest; volunteers keep fighting
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
DUTCHTOWN, Mo. (AP) — Twelve hours into a sandbagging shift, and working through a driving storm punctuated by lightning and loud claps of thunder, Casey Lee wasn't ready to quit. Not until the makeshift levee protecting tiny Dutchtown in southeast Missouri was up and ready.
Dozens of volunteers such as Lee filled sandbags through the night Tuesday and tossed them atop a hastily-constructed 6-foot-tall levee along Highway 74 around Dutchtown, a community of 34 homes and two businesses near the Mississippi River, about 100 miles south of St. Louis. Five homes were too far out to save, but the goal was to finish the makeshift levee by Wednesday to keep the rest of the town dry.
"I have friends in Dutchtown that I've known since I was 13," Lee, 30, of nearby Jackson, said. "They're family. They need help so we're here to help."
Dutchtown was among many communities in the nation's midsection fighting to stave off rivers surging from relentless rain over the past several days. Parts of southern Missouri had 15 inches of rain over a four-day period before Tuesday — and it was pouring down again Tuesday night.
The greatest flooding threat loomed in Poplar Bluff, a southeastern Missouri community of 17,000 residents in the Ozark Mountain foothills. The levee holding the Black River was overtopped in at least 30 places, and one spot just outside of town breached Tuesday morning, allowing water to gush through the hole.
Officials weren't sure how much more the levee could take. If it broke in the wrong place, 7,000 residents would be displaced and 500 homes could be damaged or destroyed.
"Each heavy downpour, each hour that passes by with the water pushing on that levee, the likelihood of a failure is that much more possible," said Deputy Police Chief Jeff Rolland.
The Missouri National Guard sent 200 guardsmen, who helped rescue people stranded in cars or homes. Butler County firefighter Dallas Tanner had already been on eight water rescues since Monday, including a woman who tried to drive her car through a flooded street. The car got swept away. Firefighters got to her as her face was pressed against the back glass, the last place in the car that wasn't submerged.
"The first thing she said was, 'Well, that was stupid,'" Tanner said. "We said, 'Yep, it sure was.'"
More than 260 residents took shelter at Black River Coliseum.
Among them were 27-year-old construction worker Frank Christy and his three children, ranging in age from 3 to 5. He said water was trickling into his house through the back door. He doesn't have renter's insurance.
"Once this is over, I'm probably moving," Christy said.
In 2008, flooding damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes in Poplar Bluff, raising doubts about the levee. A federal inspection gave it a failing grade, and the private district that maintains it has been unable to make repairs.
Flooding is affecting many other towns as well. Melissa Porter, city clerk in nearby Neelyville, said floodwaters displaced 30 residents and caused sewage to back up into the streets. Looting was reported in vacated homes.
In the sleepy town of Smithland, Ky., residents fled their homes while hundreds of volunteers piled sandbags along the riverfront. The water was rising 6 inches a day.
At the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in Cairo, Ill., at least 100 residents heeded their mayor's plea to voluntarily evacuate.
The Army Corps of Engineers was expected to decide Wednesday whether to use explosives to blow a 2-mile-wide hole through the Birds Point levee downriver from Cairo in southeast Missouri in a desperate bid to ease pressure elsewhere.
Doing so would cause 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland to flood, and the governor and other prominent Missouri politicians oppose the move. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has filed suit to stop it, arguing 100 homes would be damaged.
But Cairo Mayor Judson Childs said the move would protect his struggling town of 2,800.
"What is most important, farmland or 3,000 lives?" Childs said. "Do they want it to be like the Ninth Ward in New Orleans?"
Even as officials debated blowing up one levee, people in Dutchtown were working tirelessly to build one. The Army Corps of Engineers provided 7,000 tons of gravel that was fashioned into a flood wall and covered with sheets of plastic. Sandbags went over the plastic.
"This is backbreaking work, making sandbags," Cape Girardeau County emergency management director Richard Knaup said.
Lee brought along her two young children, ages 4 and 5, to help. One ran water to volunteers. The other shoveled rocks.
"My husband had cancer last year and we had so many blessings with people helping us — we wanted to give back," said Lee, whose husband's cancer is now in remission.
AP photographer Jeff Roberson in Dutchtown and reporters Jim Suhr in Cairo, Ill., Bruce Schreiner in Smithland, Ky., and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.