Floods in Midwest pack slow, unrelenting punch More rain expected near critical areas

July 11, 1993|By New York Times News Service

ST. LOUIS -- Floods are by far the nation's most common natural disaster, but the tide rising in the Midwest is by no means a common flood.

In a slow, inexorable onslaught, it has breached levees, washed out highways and railroads, flowed over farms and towns, and strained the vast water-control system for the Mississippi River watershed that federal engineers have spent more than three generations planning and building.

And the crisis isn't over. More torrential rains are predicted upstream from the hardest-hit areas, the southeastern quarter of Iowa and the northeastern quarter of Missouri.

"In some areas, there is water as far as you can see," said Maj. William Ratliff, a spokesman for the Missouri National Guard, which has mobilized to battle the flood.

In Rock Island, Ill., a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, Ross Fredenburg, said: "We've never had all three of our dams in Iowa filled before."

In Missouri, a spokesman for the engineers, Louis Chriodino, said: "We really don't know what's going to happen. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before."

Sixteen people have died in the floods and thousands have been evacuated, while property damage has already exceeded $1 billion in addition to damage to crops worth tens of millions.

Telephone lines in some remote places have been cut and bridges washed out. And hot weather has complicated the problems, causing some emergency workers to collapse from heat exhaustion.

Unlike a hurricane or tornado, which strikes and vanishes, floods of this magnitude do their damage in increments, as water rises and eventually overwhelms dams, levees and sandbag walls. Floods account for 90 percent of all presidential disaster declarations, and President Clinton made such declarations yesterday for Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. Requests for the declarations are also expected from Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The designation is needed for areas to qualify for grants and loans.

Although 6 million to 8 million houses and other buildings nationwide face the threat of flooding, only 2 million have flood insurance, according to the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado.

The Mississippi River is flooding from east-central Iowa to well below its confluence with the Missouri River at St. Louis.

The Missouri is flooding from above Kansas City all the way across its east-west stretch, the width of Missouri.

Elsewhere, dozens of other rivers and streams with colorful names are causing problems: the Meramek, the Big Muddy, the Kaskaskia.

Here in St. Louis, the Mississippi's flood is expected to crest at 45 feet on Wednesday, nearly two feet higher than the worst previous flood, in 1973. But the danger to the city is limited because it is protected by flood walls designed for levels of 52 feet, far higher than anything now predicted.

Viewed from an airplane yesterday, the farm fields along the river valleys were dotted with huge pools, some interlocking, like lakes in the countryside, interspersed with thick woods and bright patches of green.

The murky brown waters of the Mississippi, which usually carry barges full of grain bound for foreign markets, were instead rushing downstream laden with uprooted trees and junked cars.

In Mark Twain's boyhood hometown, Hannibal, Mo., children were catching catfish in the streets, and some roads were passable only by boats.

The Mississippi River at Hannibal was expected to crest at 32 feet tomorrow, double the flood stage. And people who have lived through other floods were already dreading the cleanup involving days of slogging through thick mud, rotting smells, and infestations of flies and mosquitoes.

Across Missouri, the state's other major city, Kansas City, and surrounding areas were inundated with 7 inches of rain in five pTC hours overnight, closing interstate highways, flooding streets and stranding residents on second-stories of a few buildings.

The rain contributed to existing flooding problems on the Missouri River.

By midafternoon yesterday both the Paseo and Chouteau bridges across the Missouri had been closed.

Late on Friday, the Missouri River crested at 29.2 feet east of the city. That topped the record set in a historic flood of 1951.

Central Iowa is expecting three more inches of rain through today, with water levels in the Des Moines River and other streams already at the highest points since the keeping of records began more than a century ago, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

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