As the floods rise over levees, the victims still can't believe it Cities pile sandbags, send help while farmers fight for livelihoods

July 13, 1993|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,Staff Writer

WEST ALTON, Mo. -- Even for Jimmy Grunwaldt, here in the last inhabited farmhouse as far as the eye can see, the Great Flood of '93 is a hard disaster to grasp.

His 220 acres are encircled and under water, a 20-minute boat ride from dry land, the farmhouse he grew up in is inches from inundation, and yet -- as if it might change the course of events -- he explains his theory of flooding to Coast Guard officers checking in on him.

"You take a quart of water and it's just so deep. You pour that quart in a big ol' wash tub and it spreads out," he says firmly.

But the water is deep -- covering his corn, and converging in West Alton from overflowing levees three miles north on the Mississippi and two miles south on the Missouri River. Mr. Grunwaldt and his wife, Carol, celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversary Sunday with a boat ride around the property.

"It's kind of peaceful," Mr. Grunwaldt allows. But Carol, sunburned from days of waiting out the flood, privately and tensely says her biggest fear is not being able to move their expensive -- and uninsured -- furniture fast enough from the flood water should it rise again. Compounding the problem, she says, is that aside from the income loss from their drowned crop and her husband's not getting to his job on a neighboring farm, her income as a baby sitter is gone for as long as parents can't bring their children to their farm.

The Grunwaldts' private tragedy is part of a public disaster that is striking similarly all along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Just in St. Charles County, which encompasses the narrow West Alton peninsula at the confluence of the two rivers, more than 120 square miles of farmland is under water and hundreds of people have been evacuated.

Continued rains to the north are not only wreaking havoc there but threaten to heighten the crest of the Mississippi in the St. Louis area to 45 feet by Sunday.

Even so, the scope of the flood is widely misunderstood by those touched by it -- like Mr. Grunwaldt's disbelief in what water can do.

"It's not so much that people are overwhelmed with the significance of the event as it is that they don't understand why it has to happen and what exactly is happening," says Jim Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Take the tourist from Buffalo, N.Y., for example, who was primed for Apocalypse by television news reports of what is happening here in the soggy Midwest. Visiting the busy cobblestone waterfront in St. Louis Sunday, he shrugged as he first spied the swift-moving Mississippi.

"I'm sorry, but is this bad water?" he asked. "I don't see what it's done."

"What it's done" was hidden under 13 feet of brown flood water -- the tops of street lamps anchored at a lower walkway on the waterfront that bobbed madly in the current were a clue.

In St. Louis, concrete flood walls along the river act as a civilizing strait jacket to the mad sprawl of the Mississippi beyond its banks up and downstream.

While about 200 South St. Louis residents were being evacuated yesterday because of rising waters on creeks getting backwash from the Mississippi, the spread of flood waters rushing to vast expanses of low-lying farmland is happening above and below the city limits.

You have to wind out along country roads to get to where rural flood victims, emergency service workers and National Guard personnel gather in knots of story-telling and coffee-drinking.

Where double yellow lines disappear into waters alive with frogs and flopping fish there is always a crowded parking lot full of flood victims' vehicles -- largely American-made pickup trucks -- and their motorboats tied up nearby.

Conversation often revolves around the number 45. Sunday's crest is based on a complicated calculation that simply means 15 feet above what is considered the beginning of flood stage at the 30-foot mark. The level was 43 feet yesterday and the two extra feet will translate into critical inches that could mean the difference between dry and wet carpet.

But just beyond the disaster areas where thousands struggle to save homes, crops, and public works in Iowa and Missouri, the pattern of life seems hardly touched.

St. Louis and the surrounding suburbs hold canned goods drives and send volunteers to fill sandbags that ring the businesses and waterfronts of dozens of river villages up and downstream.

The watery calamity hasn't disrupted the rhythm of summer, either: Sweaty Little Leaguers still pile in at the Dairy Queen, teens head to the malls to cool off at a movie, and there's a three-hour wait to ride to the top at the Arch, the monument that symbolizes the city's claim that it was the gateway to the westward expansion.

But Jimmy Grunwaldt and others who have stayed on the rivers for generations have to keep their eyes on more than just the west.

"My dad always said these rivers never come in the same way twice," he says.

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