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In Clarksville, Mo., it's pumps vs. the river

With humans having worked themselves beyond exhaustion to try to save the historic town of Clarksville, Mo., from floodwaters, the battle is now largely up to machines.'s Mike Stuckey has the story.
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With humans having worked themselves beyond exhaustion in the fight to save this historic riverfront town from the Mississippi’s floodwaters, the battle is now largely up to machines.

Pumps of every size and stripe have arrived to help suck thousands of gallons of water each minute from the town’s storm drainage system and spew it back into the river beyond the giant sandbag bulkhead that guards Clarksville’s downtown area.

Without them, that water would quickly rise out of the storm drains and basements and climb the walls of homes and businesses.

“All we’re doing is just trying to stop the bleeding, but we’re pumping against the river,” said Ian Becherer, an AmeriCorps staff member from St. Louis who is helping coordinate flood-prevention efforts here.

On the back of a pink phone memo at the command post in City Hall, Becherer sketches a quick diagram of the battlefield. Here are the streets and historic brick buildings that house art studios, galleries and antique shops. Here is the makeshift sandbag levee. Here is the Mighty Mississippi, at 36.24 feet as of 7 a.m. Thursday, more than 11 feet above flood stage and expected to rise another 18 inches before cresting sometime Saturday.

And here, Becherer says, drawing a circle well on the river side of the sandbags, is the outfall of the storm drain system. While the sandbags keep the water from advancing up the pavement and sidewalks, the awesome pressure of the rising river is sending a muddy surge back through the underground drains to pour into the streets from manholes inside the floodwall.

‘The street was bubbling up like geysers’
“Yesterday, the street was bubbling up like geysers,” said John Zimmerman, an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Elsberry, Mo. “If we didn’t pump, there’d be a fishbowl in there.”

So far, it’s working. Thursday morning, the frenzied sandbagging was completed in the downtown area, although volunteers, soldiers and inmates continued to work in other areas of town unprotected by the main floodwall.

In front of VFW Post and Auxiliary 4610, First Street was bone dry and deserted behind the sandbags, now eight to nine feet high in places and at least three times that wide at the base. On the other side, the river swept by at eye level.

With a revised forecast from the National Weather Service that the river crest, although still likely to exceed the 1993 record of 37.5 feet, would not reach 38 feet, there was guarded optimism around town. 

The real story for now is the pumps. Gas-, electric- and diesel-powered, they are here in force, brought in by the city, the state and the Army Corps of Engineers. The noise of their engines is deafening, and the hot blast of their huge fans and exhaust pipes is as punishing as a desert wind.

Still others are standing by on skids and trailers, and will likely be used only if the unthinkable happens and the levee gives way.

Diesel-powered workhorses
The workhorses of the moment are four trailer-mounted “trash pumps,” designed to move huge volumes of silt- and sludge-filled water quickly out of places where it is not supposed to be.

In front of City Hall on Howard Street, a pair of orange behemoths, known as Godwin HL6M Dri-Primes, are going full tilt. Mounted on double-axle trailers and powered by 214-hp Caterpillar diesels, the British-made centrifugal pumps are each sucking 2,300 gallons of water a minute out of the storm drains through 8-inch hoses.

Diesel power is the way to go for this job, said Sgt. David Taylor of the Missouri National Guard.

“Once you get them started, they run forever,” said Taylor, who with other members of the Guard’s 1035th maintenance unit is overseeing fueling and maintenance needs. “They run cooler and more efficiently with a lot more torque” than gasoline engines.

Alongside the Godwins, a smaller yellow pump manufactured by Moving Water Industries returns another 1,300 gallons a minute to the river. And nearer the river, in front of the Community Center, a little Godwin pump is kicking back another 750 gallons each minute. Elsewhere in town, small hand-carried pumps are also contributing, especially with seepage at the base of the sandbags, where the large machines can’t go.

An Olympic-size output
Add up what the big units are moving and you get an almost unbelievable 6,650 gallons a minute. That’s the capacity of a large tanker truck. That means the Clarksville pumps are removing more than enough water to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool — which is 164 feet by 82 feet, 6 1/2 feet deep and holds 660,430 gallons — every two hours. That much water would cover a couple of acres of land a foot deep.

With that much concentrated pumping power, “we’re keeping up with it pretty good,” Zimmerman, the Army Corps engineer, said of the rising waters.

But nodding toward the orange, red, black and blue discharge hoses snaking over the sandbag wall, he added: “The trouble is, you’re putting it right back in, like a big circle.”