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Who’s afraid of the flood? Not Hannibal

Hannibal, Mo., is braced for record flooding later this week. But the confident air here is in sharp contrast to the apprehension felt in many communities along the Mississippi River.
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HANNIBAL, Mo. - Reports of this town’s impending demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Take it from John Hark, emergency management director for the boyhood hometown of America’s most beloved literary curmudgeon, Mark Twain.

“We think we’re good,” Hark said Tuesday morning, standing atop the town’s flood wall, freshly topped with a two-foot makeshift extension.

Though Hannibal, like every other town along this stretch of the Mississippi River, is braced for record flooding late this week, the confident air here is in sharp contrast to the apprehension felt in many communities.

Hark, 61, with a full head of brushed-back silver hair, should know about the city’s prospects. The Hannibal native (a claim that Twain could not make) has been in his job 38 years, guiding the community through the four most severe floods in the history books — in 1973, 1986, 1993 and 2001.

The worst was 1993 when the river crested at 31.8 feet — 22 feet above flood stage – which was the first test of the city’s rebuilt ¾-mile-long levee. Latest forecasts this time around call for that level to be matched when the crest arrives Thursday night.

“We held in 1993 and we see no reason we won’t hold in 2008,” said Hark, wearing Ray Bans and a crisp white button-down shirt, a pair of cell phones and a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt.

'Tom Sawyer and all that'
The 18,000-resident city built the 34-foot-high berm, earthen and grass-covered in most places and concrete in some, after the river rose higher than 28.5 feet in 1973 and “put us out of business,” Hark said. The L-shaped structure sits about 65 yards back from the river shore in non-flood times and guards Hannibal’s historic downtown area with its Mark Twain Museum and boyhood home, gift shops and other attractions. It was finished just in time for the 1993 deluge.

“We had a lot of negative attitude toward building this because it was going to destroy the downtown look of Hannibal … Tom Sawyer and all that,” Hark recalled. “This flood wall has been the salvation of the city of Hannibal.”

It does not protect everything, however, and for that, Hark apologized. Outside of the protected area, a few dozen homes will take on some water, he said. “They’re not going to get five feet but when it’s your home, if you get an inch of water in it, you’re flooded.”

The water will get deeper in an industrial area that is also unprotected by the barrier. Tuesday, the smell of flooding hung heavy in the air there, organic and industrial at turns, muddy water and old oil, catfish and chemicals. Clemens Field, which bears Twain’s given last name and where the town hopes to attract a minor league franchise, was inundated, the water advancing up the rows of seats in the pie-slice bleachers behind home plate, a sad and soggy sight.

Downtown, however, there were nothing but happy campers to be found among Hannibal’s shopkeepers.

Jerry Welch, who has operated his American Décor window blind and awning shop in a 113-year-old brick building on Main Street since 1989, applauded the city’s “magnificent effort” to keep the floodwaters at bay. Welch and many fellow city residents, employees, soldiers, inmates and others answered the city’s calls last week to help add a two-foot extension to the levee, which they fashioned from concrete jersey barriers, polyethylene sheeting and sandbags.

Without the flood wall, said Welch, rubbing a sore shoulder, “We would just be devastated. … I don’t know if we’d have a downtown.”

Some merchants, including David Barton, who is a co-owner of the Jumping Frog Restaurant, and Donna Wagner, who works at the gift shop at the Mark Twain Museum, said the flooding has brought more tourists to town.

“They’re coming to see the water,” Barton said.

“Now you can say you’ve been to Hannibal,” said Wagner as she wrapped a jar of Pumpkin Butter for a visitor, “and you walked through town.”

Back atop the floodwall, a confident Hark surveyed the makeshift levee extensions with satisfaction, even as he was starting to let himself believe that the crest might not be as high as the original predictions. Better to be prepared.

As the pudding-brown water swept by on the other side of the wall, Hark floated a bit of wisdom that another, more famous, Hannibal resident might have been proud to pen.

“You never get too old to learn,” Hark said, “but you may get too old to remember what you learned.”