Twain's hometown braces for river crest

July 14, 1993|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,Staff Writer

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Mayor Richard Schwartz worked his jaw nervously as he answered calls: No, the Bear Creek dam was not in danger. Yes, volunteer sandbag-fillers were welcome. Yes, he would take time to see visiting Missouri Sen. John C. Danforth.

And then tapping one of the blinking phone lines he received news that made him exhale sharply: a local factory where workers had valiantly spent the past two weeks sandbagging and shoring up walls to keep roof-level water from entering had just imploded. Walls and roof had tumbled into the brown Mississippi water.

An unknown number of workers were inside.

The crescendo of tension in the 114th straight day of dealing with flood-level water could be measured yesterday in the constant walkie-talkie crackle and the ringing phones at the city hall emergency command center.

The Mississippi River flood crest -- frustratingly predicted and re-predicted for last Saturday, Sunday and tomorrow -- seemed to be finally happening as water rose rapidly at two-tenths of a foot an hour, coming within 1 1/2 feet of the 32-foot expected crest.

"The river's been going in and out like a bungee cord -- the closer we get to a crest, the closer we get to it all being over," said Police Chief John E. Waldschlager.

Last April 11, said Chief Waldschlager, the Mississippi here between the bluffs of Illinois and Missouri reached technical flood level at 16 feet above low water. Gradually rising since then, the river has overtaken 160 businesses and homes outside the city levee.

That $8 million levee, completed just this spring, was built to withstand a flood beyond anything this town ever expected -- a 32.5-foot crest. And that -- a 32-foot crest -- is just what was expected last night or this morning.

Downtown Hannibal -- the childhood home of Mark Twain and the setting for the escapades of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn -- lies on a slope near the river.

The new levee now blocks the view of the Mississippi from the picket-fenced (yes, it's whitewashed) house which Samuel Clemens grew up in and which is now a part of a Mark Twain museum.

Even Hannibal citizens are surprised to learn that in Twain's lifetime there were no severe floods here.

"With the levee and flood protection projects of the 1920s and '30s, the river was forced into a narrower channel, and [flooding is] going to get deeper. The water used to be allowed to spread out across bottom lowlands," explains Henry Sweets, director of the Mark Twain Home and Museum.

Today, most of the city's 18,000 residents live on high ground and are not in danger.

But even so, citizens streamed into the city center yesterday.

Mom-child-toddler sandbag crews worked just inside the levee downtown -- a cheerful, joking bunch pitching in to defy nature. Toddlers opened white plastic bags, older children held and tied them as mothers spaded sand into them.

Others walked to the foot of Broadway and climbed up to pace the levee -- looking for breaks and eyeing how high the water has come up the side of a grain elevator now a 100 yards out in the swift current.

Jerry Welch, owner of an upholstery store a block from the levee, comes over hourly to count the number of bricks left showing on a levee support column.

"There were 13 bricks this morning. There are nine now," he says, adding "This is just a nervous situation."

But the levee -- controversial because Army Corps of Engineer cost-benefit quotients caused a ring of homes and businesses around downtown to be excluded and vulnerable to floods -- means little to the workers at the Display Co.

The Display workers were the ones that caused Mayor Schwartz a sharp moment of concern.

At the sign and display manufacturing plant, about 80 employees escaped injury when a sandbag-supported wall broke under the weight of water and caused part of the factory to cave in. But no one was injured.

"Water was 7 feet high outside, and there was no water inside. The pressure started to make a popping sound and then the walls blew open," said John Muehring, the plant tooling supervisor.

"I saw an 80-ton pinch press just scoot across the floor, and we got out of there," he said.

"Mark Twain had seen earlier attempts to control the river. He thought [it] could overcome any obstacle man could put in front of it," said Mr. Sweets.

"He may be right, the river goes where it wants to and it's pretty hard to say no."

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