Battle To Contain Mississippi Continues

Saturday, June 21st 2008, 8:08 am
By: News 9

Weather forecasters lowered flood crest projections in some parts of the U.S. Midwest, but warned that many towns still faced threats in a region where the overflowing Mississippi River has caused some of the worst flooding in more than a decade.

The flooding in the Midwest has brought freight traffic on the upper Mississippi River to a standstill, stranding more than 100 barges loaded with grain, cement, scrap metal, fertilizer and other products while shippers wait for the water to drop.

"We're basically experiencing total shutdown," said Larry Daily, president of Alter Barge Line Inc. of Bettendorf, Iowa.

Over the past month, the flooding has ravaged small towns along the river's banks, claiming 24 lives in six states, displacing thousands and devastating agricultural land. Volunteers and officials have scrambled to shore up levees amid government warnings that a couple dozen could fail.

Three levees broke in the western part of Missouri on Thursday, sending a creeping wave of water toward the town of Foley and causing more concern in nearby Winfield.

Floodwaters rapidly filled roads, yards and gullies, and authorities estimate much of Foley will be flooded by the weekend.

In Foley, Bobby James Jr.'s yard used to overlook a sod farm. But thanks to floodwaters that traveled more than two miles to swamp his neighborhood, he now has lakefront property, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy.

Most residents of Foley and its neighbor to the south, Winfield, left the area days ago. But John Watson didn't go far in his search for higher ground, opting instead to pitch a tent on his roof and watch the floodwaters rise.

Others volunteered to help, bagging 4.5 million pounds of sand.

While the situation worsened in Lincoln County - where Foley is located - it improved slightly elsewhere along the river after the National Weather Service significantly lowered crest predictions.

The revisions came after several levee breaks in Illinois, including one on Wednesday near Meyer that potentially could inundate 17,000 acres of farmland with water that otherwise would have been flowing south.

The river was overflowing 90 percent of the levees in eastern Lincoln County, and at least four more breaches were expected to aggravate the flooding overnight, said Lincoln County Emergency Management spokesman Andy Binder.

Many towns along the river, however, will not get the record-level crests they expected. The new prediction shows St. Louis cresting at 37.3 feet on Friday, well short of the 49.58-foot mark set in the historic floods of 1993.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Kramper said towns must still be vigilant.

"There will still be a lot of places with major flooding," Kramper said. "Even at the levels we're expecting now, a lot of places are threatened."

The weather might not help, with forecasters predicting showers and scattered thunderstorms in Missouri and Iowa both Friday and Saturday before the precipitation moves out Sunday.

Because of high water on the Mississippi River, the Army Corps of Engineers has closed nine locks along the upper Mississippi since June 12. That has stopped all traffic through the locks along a 225-mile stretch between Illinois City, Illinois, and Winfield, Missouri, northwest of St. Louis.

While the bottleneck is costing barge operators tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue per day, June is a slow shipping period on the river compared with the late-summer harvest, the shutdown is expected to last only a few weeks, and it involves primarily non-perishable goods. So no major damage to the economy is expected.

The situation along the Mississippi in Missouri was improving Friday as government forecasters predicted crests sharply below 1993's record levels.

In Iowa, where residents are mopping up after the deluge in Des Moines and Iowa City, President George W. Bush surveyed the flood's aftermath on Thursday and assured residents and rescuers alike that he is listening to their concerns.

"Obviously, to the extent we can help immediately, we will help," said Bush, still mindful of criticism that the government reacted slowly to Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. Gulf Coast three years ago.

Bush was in Europe when tornadoes hit and heavy rains sent rivers surging over their banks, killing at least 24 people, the majority in Iowa. He made a point to try to show his concern while overseas and traveled to Iowa just two days after returning.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator R. David Paulison accompanied Bush to Iowa. The agency also came under fire after Katrina.

He said one thing FEMA was doing differently was working better with other partners - the Army Corps of Engineers and even Wal-Mart to distribute supplies. The agency also was placing stocks of sandbags and other supplies in states or towns where flooding had not hit yet or material had not been requested, just to be ready, he said.

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