Flooded neighbors mark Twain days anyway River not so romantic amid disaster

July 04, 1993|By New York Times News Service

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- The Mark Twain Memorial Bridge over the Mississippi River here is closed. Coast Guard boats patrol two swamped neighborhoods, and high water threatens an electric power station and 110,000 acres of nearby farmland. The river is 12 feet over flood level here, the highest it has been in 20 years.

But the sun was out and, anyway, people here take their Fourth of July celebration very seriously. They call it National Tom Sawyer Days, the 38th annual festival in honor of Mark Twain, who grew up here in the mid-1800s and borrowed some of its people and places for his books.

So people began gathering on the huge earthen levee near Main Street at 7 a.m. yesterday, not to stack sandbags as many have been doing all week, but to watch young men and women slip and slide at the start of the two-day "Mud Volleyball Tournament." In other weekend events, contestants will paint a picket fence, race frogs and dress up like Tom, Huck and Becky. A Mark Twain impersonator, all in white, led the parade down Broadway yesterday morning.

"The incongruity of it all is unbelievable," said Hannibal's mayor, Richard B. Schwartz, in his home yesterday morning just before the parade. "The city operations are in emergency mode, a bunker mentality, and you look out the window and see thousands of people celebrating."

The Mississippi River, swollen from days of heavy rain, still held its own. On Friday, some levees broke upstream, swamping houses and farmland and prompting some evacuations. In La Grange, a small town about 30 miles north of Hannibal, half the 400 residents had to abandon their homes after two of the town's three levees broke. Authorities also had to evacuate more than 400 women from a low-lying prison in Jefferson City, the state capital, and transfer them to a drier prison in central Missouri.

But most river communities appeared to be having a breather on yesterday. Predictions for high-water cresting were scaled down slightly, the water was receding upstream, and even if more rain comes, as forecast, it will not worsen the flood significantly. "It will only prolong it," Guy Tucker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said yesterday.

In Davenport, Iowa, the worst-hit community, the river was at 21.9 feet yesterday morning, and the river was expected to crest yesterday by rising to 22 feet. "The crest might mean water will reach some more houses, and people have been out there sandbagging around the clock," said Denise C. Yale, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Davenport, with a population of almost 100,000, suffered the most extensive urban flooding of any community along the river. The city, unlike almost all its neighbors, never built any flood-control systems; it missed the opportunity for full federal financing in the 1970s, and the idea died in the 1980s because of rising construction costs and the community's reluctance to lose its view of the river, Ms. Yale said.

The river was eerily quiet yesterday after the Coast Guard banned all recreational boating and commercial fishing because of concern that the boats' wakes would weaken the earthen levees along the shore. In places such as Keithsburg, Ill., state prisoners were drafted to help with the sandbagging effort.

Governors of six states -- Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois -- have sought federal disaster aid, HTC especially for their hard-hit farmers. It will take months before the financial loss is tallied, but figures are already into the billions of dollars. President Clinton has promised federal assistance and scheduled a tour for today.

The federal government has spent well over $10 billion trying to control the 2,350-mile-long Mississippi River, which drains 1.25 million square miles in 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

The river normally passes up to 1 million cubic feet of water per second; in floods like this one, which began 15 days ago, the current sends 2 million to 3 million cubic feet of water down the river each second. Geologists say the river's flow has been constricted in the last 20 years by a buildup of silt on the bottom and by the construction of many flood-control systems. Since 1973, there have been four floods of a size that is usually expected to occur only once in a hundred years.

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