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April 21, 2013

Crests approaching in several towns in Midwest

CLARKSVILLE, Mo. (AP) — Those fighting floods in several communities along the Mississippi River were mostly successful Sunday despite the onslaught of water, but an ominous forecast and the growing accumulation of snow in the upper Midwest tempered any feelings of victory.

The surging Mississippi was at or near crest at several places from the Quad Cities south to near St. Louis — some reaching 10 feet above flood stage. Problems were plentiful: Hundreds of thousands of acres of swamped farmland as planting season approaches; three people died; roads and bridges closed, including sections of major highways like U.S. 61 in Iowa and Missouri and crossings at Quincy, Ill., and Louisiana, Mo.

The U.S. Coast Guard said 114 barges broke loose near St. Louis on Saturday night, and four hit the Jefferson Barracks Bridge in St. Louis County. The bridge was closed about six hours for inspection but reopened around 8 a.m. Sunday. The runaway barges were corralled but authorities believe a few sank.

Flooding has now been blamed in three deaths — two at the same spot in Indiana and one in Missouri. In all three cases, vehicles were swept off the road in flash floods. High water could be responsible for two more, both in Illinois, where a decomposed body was found Thursday in an Oak Brook creek and a body was found Saturday in the Mississippi River at Cora. Investigations continue.

And the danger is far from over, as spots south of St. Louis aren’t expected to crest until next week, and significant flooding is possible in places like Ste. Genevieve, Mo., Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Cairo, Ill.

Adding to concern is a forecast that calls for heavy rain Monday night and Tuesday throughout much of the Midwest. National Weather Service meteorologist Julie Phillipson said an inch of rain is likely in many places, some places even more.

“That’s not what we want to see when we have this kind of flooding, that’s for sure,” Phillipson said.

Meanwhile, the northern Midwest has received heavy snow this month, and concerns are turning to what happens when it melts and makes its way into tributaries of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Forecasters said up to 6 inches of new snow was possible in the Black Hills area of South Dakota through Monday morning.

Hundreds of miles to the southeast, in La Grange, Mo., Lewis County emergency management director David Keith wasn’t bothered by the soggy forecast. Sandbags were holding back the murky Mississippi from La Grange City Hall, a bank and a handful of threatened homes, and the water was receding.

“What we’re worried about now is all that snow melt in North and South Dakota and Minnesota,” Keith said.

A handful of river towns are most affected by the high waters — places like Clarksville, Mo., and Grafton, Ill., that have chosen against flood walls or levees.

By Sunday, sandbagging had all but stopped in Clarksville, evidence of the confidence that the makeshift sandbag levee hurriedly erected to protect downtown would hold. Volunteers, including nearly three dozen prison inmates, worked since Wednesday, using 6,000 tons of sand and gravel.

The river was at 34.7 feet Sunday, nearly 10 feet above the 25-foot flood stage — a somewhat arbitrary term the NWS defines as the point when “water surface level begins to create a hazard to lives, property or commerce” — and expected to rise another foot before cresting Monday.

“We believe we’ll have a successful conclusion,” said Jo Anne Smiley, longtime mayor of the 442-resident hamlet.

Richard Cottrell, a 64-year-old antique shop owner, was hopeful, but nervous. After two days of endless sandbagging, Cottrell thought he could rest Saturday night, but the constant beeping of heavy equipment outside and flood worries kept him up.

“I had a rough night last night. I had an anxiety attack,” he admitted.

Many towns on smaller rivers in other states were dealing with floodwaters, too.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has declared four more counties disaster areas, bringing the statewide number of disaster declarations to 41. Several rivers were approaching record levels there, and thousands of people have been evacuated, especially in Peoria and other communities along the Illinois River.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence spent part of the weekend surveying flood damage. He said state officials have begun assessing the scope of the damage to determine if affected communities are eligible for disaster assistance. Hundreds of people have been evacuated, and the towns of Kokomo, Tipton and Elwood were especially affected.

In Wisconsin, several rivers were starting to fall off, but are expected to rise again with rainfall next week. Everyone from high school volunteers in jail inmates have proactively filled thousands of sandbags in the Janesville area for residents who might need them in the coming days.

The mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich., declared a state of emergency Saturday, and the Grand River is likely to surpass its high-water mark either Sunday or Monday.

 

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