River crests about to collide in Missouri Kansas City braces for massive merger

July 27, 1993|By B. Drummond Ayres Jr. | B. Drummond Ayres Jr.,New York Times News Service

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Like some great watery pincer, the rampaging Missouri and Kansas rivers are closing in on Kansas City.

Sometime today, a record flood crest coming down the Kansas and another record crest coming down the Missouri will collide at Kansas City, where the two rivers join.

No one knows quite what to expect as Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., just to the west of the confluence of the two rivers, become the focal point of the great flood of 1993.

"Prayer may be the only answer," said Michael Koska, a fireworks wholesaler, as he struggled yesterday to move his inventory of whiz-bangs, cherry bombs and sparklers from a warehouse in the bottom land to higher ground.

Many other cities and towns in the still-growing Midwest disaster area are under assault, of course. In particular, there is St. Joseph, Mo., 54 miles upstream from Kansas City on the Missouri, where the water system has been knocked out and where the city's 76,000 residents, now dependent on trucked-in water, have put their business and social lives on hold. Repairs could take a week.

The record river crests headed for Kansas City are the result of weekend downpours that were heavier than expected and fell over such a wide area that the Midwest disaster zone expanded to record length and breadth.

Overall, the '93 flood has now deluged the better part of eight states. It now ranks as one of the worst natural disasters to hit any section of the country. It is blamed for the loss of at least 42 lives, and estimates of the damage it has caused are pushing toward $12 billion.

Besides the record crests headed down the Missouri and the Kansas, a record crest is also headed down the Mississippi as a result of the weekend rains. It is expected to top out at St. Louis there early next week at 48 feet, a full foot above the crest that passed through earlier this month, a crest that at that time seemed likely to be the worst the flood of '93 could wreak.

But for the next 24 hours, Kansas City is the place to watch in this summer of rain and runoff of historic proportion.

All day yesterday, sometimes under a bright sun, sometimes in pouring rain, thousands of city employees, National Guard troops and volunteers struggled to raise levees never designed for a collision of two record crests.

The crest on the Missouri is expected to reach 48.5 feet, and the crest on the Kansas is expected to hit 55 feet. Most levees near the juncture of the two rivers were designed to hold crests of only 52 feet.

The Kansas River, also known as the Kaw River, was within 3 feet of the top of a concrete restraining wall yesterday and rising a hundred yards away from Mr. Koska's warehouse.

A massive tree, a couple of rusty steel drums and what looked like part of a bridge trestle floated past in the roiled waters. Across the muddy expanse, on the other bank, bulldozers and a crew of teen-age volunteers were struggling to raise an earthen levee.

If the levees and walls here fail under the record river pressure, some housing subdivisions and a number of industrial areas will be deluged, some of them built on river bottom that in the days before feedlots was home to the teeming Kansas City stockyards.

Further, some water treatment plants might go under. The main business districts and housing developments of the metropolitan area rest on high ground and thus will be spared, no matter how high the imminent crests.

But there is still plenty of potential for major damage, plenty of potential for the two cities here to join the list of sodden victims of the great summer flood.

"All we can do is keep piling up the bags and hope for the best," said David Patton, a school custodian, as he muscled another muddy sack into place within a few yards of the Missouri-Kansas juncture.

It seemed a battle that could go either way. To his right, a levee on the Missouri was beginning to seep. To his left, water was creeping in through a crack in a flood wall meant to hold back the Kansas. And at his feet, water was bubbling up out of the PTC ground, challenging a pump that strained to hurl it back into the Missouri.

"Water, water everywhere," Mr. Patton said with a weary smile.

George Hanley, the chief spokesman here for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, warned that the potential for disaster would increase should there be unexpected heavy rain overnight.

At St. Louis, levees and flood walls, under strain for more than six weeks, have begun to develop ominous cracks and leaks. Worried that a serious break might be imminent, 1,500 volunteers and 200 city workers labored feverishly yesterday to strengthen and raise the barriers.

MARYLANDERS HELP

Marylanders have contributed more than $13,000 to aid flood victims since Gov. William Donald Schaefer appealed for aid two weeks ago.

Most donations have been small, Secretary of State Tyras S. Athey said yesterday; one family sent in an anonymous donation of $61, one dollar for each child, grandchild, great-grandchild and in-law in the family, he said.

"Children have sent in their allowance money, while senior citizens on fixed incomes have contributed what they can," Mr. Athey said.

Governor Schaefer asked every Marylander to send in $1 to aid flood victims in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The fund-raising drive continues, and donations for the Midwest Flood Victims fund can be sent to the governor's office in the State House, Annapolis, Md. 21401. The American National Red Cross will distribute the money.

A similar drive in 1989 raised $77,681 for victims of Hurricane Hugo.

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