Flood concerns grow for southeast Missouri town

ST. LOUIS (AP) — With southeast Missouri saturated by floodwaters, water was creeping nearer to the town of East Prairie on Friday and concerns were rising along with it.

Water from 22 inches of rain over the past two weeks is collecting in the St. John’s Bayou Basin, where the town of 3,400 residents sits. The water can’t drain into the Mississippi River because flood gates are closed at nearby New Madrid, where the water crested at a record level Thursday.

As a result, backwater is threatening to flood the town. Streets are wet in some parts of East Prairie, though so far, Mayor Kevin Mainord was unaware of any damage to homes. Pumps and sandbags are at the ready.

Mainord was hopeful the trouble would pass — as long as the rain holds off.

“Right now the sun is shining and as long as it stays that way we’ll be fine,” Mainord said. “Our concern is we can’t stand another big rain event like we’ve had over and over for the past two weeks.”

While East Prairie is not far from where the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached Birds Point levee this week to relieve pressure at Cairo, Ill., and other nearby towns, Mainord says the problem is unrelated to the levee breach.

The onslaught of rain has caused significant flooding on the Mississippi and other rivers in southeast Missouri. The U.S. Coast Guard on Friday closed a five-mile section of the Mississippi at Caruthersville over concerns that the wake from barges could send water spilling over the floodwall protecting the town of 6,700 residents. The closure is expected to last eight days.

The overflow from rivers combined with simple saturation of land has resulted in hundreds of thousands of acres under water. That includes the 130,000 acres of farmland in Mississippi County flooded by the Birds Point levee breach.

Missouri Agriculture Director Jon Hagler met with several farmers from the area Thursday and assured them that crop insurance will cover their losses — both for crops already in the ground and for those that had not yet been planted. Gov. Jay Nixon said Friday that state officials will be in southeast Missouri for meetings next week on how the state can help those affected by the flood. They will be Tuesday in Poplar Bluff and Sikeston, and Wednesday in Charleston, New Madrid and Caruthersville.

The Missouri National Guard and the Missouri State Highway Patrol have performed countless water rescues throughout southeast Missouri. But 33 guardsmen and some members of the patrol had to be rescued themselves when six boats patrolling the area near the breached levee got stuck in a low-water spot.

No one was in any significant danger, the Guard said. About half were rescued Thursday before dark. The others spent the night on the levee and the Guard dropped provisions to them. They were rescued Friday morning.

The Mississippi River crested Thursday at 48.35 feet in New Madrid, a record, and it is expected to stay close to that level through the middle of next week. The river has already topped the previous record of 46 feet in Caruthersville and stood at 47.6 feet on Friday. A crest of 49.5 feet — a half-foot below the top of the floodwall — is now projected for early Monday. The National Weather Service previously expected the crest to occur Sunday.

The Missouri National Guard has built a sandbag levee and earthen berms behind the floodwall in case water comes over the top.

Not far from East Prairie, one lane of Interstate 55 had to be closed for a while Thursday because water from a ditch was spilling onto the roadway. The Missouri Department of Transportation said the interstate had no restrictions on Friday, though roads and highways were closed in hundreds of spots throughout the region.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it is helping animal shelters in the Caruthersville area by evacuating and housing about 500 displaced pets.

Though the weather has dried out and the river levels are starting to fall in much of southeast Missouri, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh of the Corps of Engineers cautioned that it is too early to become complacent.

“The flood fight is not over,” Walsh said. “We have hundreds of engineers working right now in the field fighting floods. Our goal is to reduce risk to people living behind our levees.”

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