The implacable Mississippi shows its power, foot by foot


July 09, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

STE. GENEVIEVE, Mo. -- Relentlessly it rose, this muddy river, leisurely obscuring notches carved into a telephone pole to measure the silent assault yesterday of a slow-motion disaster.

The worst was still a few days away in historic Ste. Genevieve, but calamity already stalked Linda Martin and her family. Swollen by rains that would not cease, the Mississippi River and its tributaries surged through levees and swirled toward record heights through a huge swath of the Midwest.

As she filled sandbags to put around her house, Ms. Martin watched that telephone pole yesterday the way South Floridians watched their TV screens last August. But in the end, Ms. Martin was just as helpless, just as humble before the power of nature.

Your disasters come quick and blow away quick," she told a visitor from South Florida. "Ours come slow and stay a long time.

"But at some point, it's really the same: We're going to get hit real bad, and we're mostly just sitting here waiting for it."

In many towns tucked into up-river bends, the waiting was over: Disaster already lapped at rooftops, engulfed farms, washed away businesses.

At least 16 people died. Damage estimates ranged to $2 billion. Hundreds of National Guard troops were mobilized. Thousands of residents fled to higher ground.

Shelters opened throughout the region. One of them, in the swamped town of Grafton, Ill., was surrounded by water. Evacuees and those who would serve them were ferried to the place by boat.

Experts called it the nation's most severe flood in 20 years or more. Residents called it the "Great Flood of '93."

In a radio address from Japan, where he is attending the economic summit, President Clinton promised speedy federal aid and urged Midwest residents to take heart.

"Times of turmoil and trouble bring out the best in Americans," he said.

Alice Wichern, 71, of Ste. Genevieve was counting on that.

"We need the help," said Ms. Wichern, the water licking closer to her neat, brick home on Fourth Street. "This is the worst I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot."

She also drew a parallel to South Florida's experience. She said her congregation at the Holy Cross Lutheran Church donated hand-made quilts to Hurricane Andrew victims.

"Now, I guess we might get them back," she said. "You never know what people really are going through until you go through it yourself. They have 3 feet of water in the house next door, and the flood hasn't even reached there yet."

In many areas, the ground is so saturated that water -- seep water, they call it -- bubbles through foundations and into basements. In response, the region resounded to the racket of portable generators and pumps.

And still the rain fell, 3 inches of it yesterday in Iowa and Nebraska, powerful thunderstorms elsewhere. The emergency broadcast system was activated to relay flash flood warnings for the northern third of Missouri and other areas of the Midwest.

The main concern: As bad as it already was, the flood would grow worse in coming days as all that rainwater gathered ultimately in the Mississippi River -- and then headed south.

The Mississippi, so often called mighty, so often personified as a stubborn old man, was again reclaiming its flood plain.

In Kimmswick, a riverside hamlet about 20 miles south of St. Louis, as in most river towns, the pace was frantic yesterday. Bulldozers rumbled along levees, where they still existed, or along makeshift battle lines drawn on muddy streets.

One rule of thumb: Any thoroughfare called Front Street, and every town has one, was almost certainly under water.

At the intersection of Mill and Second streets, National Guard troops and local residents -- men, women, children -- laboriously filled sandbags.

In Kimmswick and Ste. Genevieve and so many other towns, fields, back yards and front yards are now brown, frothy lakes -- capped by a veneer of twigs and grass cuttings.

Streams that empty into the Mississippi now splash over bridges, and the crest is not expected in these towns until Tuesday or Wednesday.

The upper Midwest is splintered with rivers, streams and creeks, and almost all overflowed their banks yesterday -- some extending seven miles or more inland.

Missouri, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois all endured flood crests that approached or exceeded record levels. In some areas, the crests were expected to break records that reached back to the mid-1800s.

Levees broke yesterday in West Alton, Mo., and in the Illinois towns of Keithsburg and Oquawka; floodwaters spilled over the top of a levee at Alexandria, Mo., and the town was under 6 feet of water.

Engineers predicted a record crest of 45 feet in St. Louis next week, 15 feet above flood stage. The city's floodgates can withstand 52 feet of water, officials said, but water could end up around the base of the landmark arch.

Still, it was in the smaller towns throughout the region, towns like Ste. Genevieve, that people fought the battle hand-in-hand.

Linda and Randy Martin have lived through four previous floods, in a home closer to the river. Last October, they moved four blocks farther from shore. No matter -- the Mississippi is getting them anyway.

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