IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

More levees in danger along Mississippi

At least 21 levees along the Mississippi River are in danger of overtopping over the next few days, the Army Corps of Engineers warned Wednesday.
Image: Meyer IL Levee break
The Mississippi River rushes through after topping a levee near Meyer, Ill., on Wednesday.Steve Bohnstedt / Quincy Herald Whig via AP
/ Source: news services

At least 21 levees along the Mississippi River above St. Louis are in danger of overtopping over the next few days, the Army Corps of Engineers warned Wednesday — a day that saw several setbacks, including one breach that could swamp 47 square miles of prime farmland.

The forecast follows at least 20 compromised levees across the Midwest and along several rivers so far this month that have flooded tens of thousands of acres, forced thousands of people to evacuate and caused losses in the billions of dollars.

The only silver lining to the forecast is that the threatened areas are farmland, not densely populated areas.

Earlier Wednesday, floodwaters with the potential to swamp 47 square miles breached a levee in western Illinois.

The breach flooded farmland near the hamlet of Meyer, Adams County Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Julie Shepard said.

Meyer, a town of 40 to 50 people, had to be evacuated, and authorities patrolled the town Wednesday morning to make sure no one was left behind, she said.

Flooding at Meyer could swamp 30,000 acres — or about 47 square miles — in the largely rural area, she said.

The flooding toll
Storms and flooding across six states this month have killed 24 people, injured 148 and caused more than $1.5 billion in estimated damage in Iowa alone — a figure that's likely to increase as river levels climb in Missouri and Illinois.

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said that as of Wednesday afternoon, officials shifted concern to flooding between St. Louis and the Quad Cities, which include Bettendorf and Davenport in Iowa and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois.

Paulison said he expects that the lower part of the Mississippi will absorb the increased water flow without much impact.

Paulison said the Environmental Protection Agency has been asked to test the water and air quality. FEMA also is organizing national housing task forces in the affected states. No states have requested FEMA trailers as of Wednesday.

In the flooded regions, some food processing plants were expected to be shut down, and officials expected maritime transportation to be closed for at least a week.

The federal government has provided more than 3 million quarts of water, 150 generators, more than 213,000 meals, 13 million sandbags and 4,000 rolls of plastic sheeting, according to FEMA and Army Corps tallies.

More than 28,000 people have registered for FEMA disaster assistance. Paulison said only 9 percent of them have flood insurance. Those without flood insurance are limited in what federal assistance they can receive.

Barge traffic cut off
A 280-mile stretch of the Mississippi River remained closed between Fulton, Ill., and Winfield, Mo., because of flooding, and is expected to remain closed for at least 10 more days. Lynn Muench, of the towboat and barge trade group The American Waterways Operators, said as many as 10 tows — each with as many as 15 barges — were stuck on the upper Mississippi River.

About 25,000 people in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, were forced from their homes, 19 buildings at the University of Iowa were flooded and water treatment plants in several cities were knocked out.

Later in the week, the Mississippi is expected to threaten a host of other communities, leading officials to consider evacuation plans and begin sandbagging.

In Clarksville — a historic artists' town of 500 between St. Louis and Hannibal, Mo. — National Guard members, inmates and students were sandbagging. Five blocks were already swamped, but volunteers were doing their best to save buildings housing the shops of artisans and craftsmen.

"We fix one thing and it breaks," Mayor Jo Anne Smiley said. "Sewers are plugged up. We have leaks in walls and people who need things. We're boating in food to people."

1993 buyouts helped
But even as the water jeopardized scores of additional homes and businesses, officials said the damage could have been worse if the federal government had not purchased low-lying land after historic floods in 1993 that caused $12 billion in damage.

Since then, the government bought out more than 9,000 homeowners, turning much of the land into parks and undeveloped areas that can be allowed to flood with less risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has moved or flood-proofed about 30,000 properties.

The effort required whole communities to be moved, such as Rhineland, Mo., and Valmeyer, Ill.

In Iowa, FEMA spent $1.6 million to buy out residents of Elkport, population 80, and then knock down the village's remaining buildings. Some residents moved to Garber, Elkport's twin city across the Turkey River, but others abandoned the area.

"There's nothing there in Elkport anymore," said Helen Jennings of Garber. "They built new houses in different places."

Some of those who stayed are paying a price.

The federal government bought about a quarter of the homes in Chelsea, Iowa, after the 1993 floods, but most of the 300 residents stayed. At least 10 homes are now inundated by the Iowa River to their first floors.

Residents take it in stride, said Mayor Roger Ochs.

"For the most part, it's another flood," he said. "For Chelsea, it's more of an inconvenience."

On Tuesday, people were urged to evacuate an area near Gulf Port, Ill., as floodwaters threatened about 12 square miles of farmland. Henderson County Deputy Sheriff Donald Seitz said a major highway could be under 10 feet of water by midday Wednesday.

On the Iowa side of the river, a sandbagging operation was moved south to the outskirts of Burlington after floodwaters streamed across state Highway 99.

Oakville Apostolic Church "is now an island," said Carly Wagenbach, who was taking food to levee workers.

Officials were also concerned about the integrity of a levee that protects a drainage area south of Oakville.

"It's outrageous," said Steve Poggemiller. "We're hanging on by a thread — or a sandbag."

Jeff Campbell, a farmer carrying sandbags on his four-wheeler, said he spotted pigs swimming away from a flooded hog farm near Oakville. They were climbing a levee, poking holes in the plastic that covered it, he said.

One tired pig was lying at the bottom of the levee "like a pink sandbag," Campbell said.

The rising water forced the closure of the Mississippi bridge in Burlington and stopped car traffic on the bridge in Fort Madison. The bridge's railroad tracks remained open. A bridge downriver in Keokuk also remained open.

Clean up in Cedar Rapids
To the north in Cedar Rapids, floodwaters had dropped enough that officials let hundreds of people return to their damaged homes and businesses.

"It's obviously much more shocking when you walk in the door for the first time and see what happened," said Amy Wyss, watching sullenly as a giant blower was used to dry out her upscale wine bar, Zins. "I don't think you can be prepared for this, even if you think you are."

The National Weather Service expects crests this week along some Mississippi River communities near St. Louis to come close to those of 1993. The river at Canton, Mo., could reach 27.5 feet on Thursday, just shy of the 27.88 mark of 1993 and more than 13 feet above flood stage.

Crests at Quincy, Ill., and Hannibal, Mo., are expected to climb to about 15 feet above flood stage, narrowly short of the high water from 15 years ago.

In St. Louis, the Mississippi is projected to crest Saturday at 39.8 feet, about 10 feet above flood stage but still a foot lower than in 1993.