ST. LOUIS (AP) - Flood watchers in several Missouri towns are checking levees, gathering sandbags and keeping close tabs on weather forecasts as the already high Mississippi River verges on potentially significant flooding.
The river has been above technical flood stage for weeks in northern Missouri. Flooding has been worse to the north, and that water is making its way downstream. National Weather Service hydrologist Mark Fuchs said Tuesday that moderate flooding is predicted in towns like Canton, LaGrange, Hannibal, Louisiana, Clarksville and Winfield.
But it could get worse. Heavy rain is predicted Thursday through Sunday in Missouri, but also in states to the north. That creates the potential for additional runoff that could cause the river to rise even higher, perhaps to what the Weather Service considers major levels.
"That, for the Mississippi, is a little scary," Fuchs said. "That's a lot of water, and it's going to be feeding down into the middle part of the Mississippi in the next week and a half."
Heavy precipitation last fall, combined with significant snow melt in northern states this winter, have kept the river higher than normal for months. Emergency managers worry about what a wet week might bring.
"I monitor everything from here to the Canadian border," said John Hark, emergency management director in historic Hannibal. A flood levee protects Hannibal's Mark Twain sites and the rest of downtown, and buyouts since the 1993 flood have removed most residents from the flood plain. But flooding would close streets and roads, flood a senior center, and potentially hamper a few businesses.
The Weather Service is predicting a crest of 22.6 feet in Hannibal over the weekend - 6.6 feet above flood stage. But that doesn't account for rain later this week. Hark believes the river will get to around 25 feet, which would be the sixth-highest flood on record.
Unlike Hannibal, LaGrange and Clarksville don't have levees. Emergency officials on Tuesday were unavailable for an interview because they were on their way to obtain sandbags. The river was expected to get to nearly 7 feet above flood stage early next week. If that happens, water would creep precariously close to quaint downtown shops and artist businesses.
In LaGrange, not far from the Iowa border, 35,000 sandbags were at the ready. But City Administrator Mark Campbell said he remains hopeful they won't be needed. The river is expected to get to about 6 feet above flood stage by Saturday.
"We'd have to get another 3 feet higher than what's predicted before we'd sandbag," Campbell said.
Levees along the middle Mississippi are ready for any onslaught, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman George Stringham said. Any damage from the 2008 flood has been repaired, including at Winfield, where a burrowing muskrat created the hole that caused the levee to succumb to the flooding Mississippi, eventually damaging a few dozen homes.
Strong storms hit parts of Missouri on Tuesday. Fuchs said heavy rain is expected to arrive again Thursday, with several periods of showers likely through Sunday.
Southern Missouri is expected to get the worst of the Thursday-Sunday rain - perhaps several inches - which would spare most of the Mississippi River valley. But the region from southern Wisconsin through northern Missouri could get an inch-and-a-half or more. As a result, Fuchs said hydrologists are watching tributaries in Missouri like the Big River and Meramec River, which tend to rise much more quickly than the Mississippi or the Missouri.