Worst of Midwest flood may be over Swollen Mississippi begins to subside

no rain forecast

August 03, 1993|By New York Times News Service

ST. LOUIS -- The Mississippi River all but consumed villages and farmland to the north and south of here yesterday, but St. Louis' 11-mile concrete flood wall stood firm against a rushing onslaught of muddy water that officials described as the death throes of the great flood of 1993.

The havoc suffered in the smaller towns along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers proved to be this city's gain.

Unexpected breaks in levees outside the city helped reduce the pressure of the Mississippi and bring down its crest, which ran below the most dire predictions made over the weekend as it passed the landmark Gateway Arch here.

Although forecasters said Sunday that the river would crest in St. Louis yesterday, it now appears that the crest came even as they were speaking.

The river reached 49.4 feet here Sunday, about 2.5 feet below the top of the flood wall, and it got up only as high as 48.6 feet yesterday, according to the National Weather Service.

"It looks like it's finally going to ease up," said Ken Kruchowski, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "As long as we don't get any steady rainfall in the Mississippi basin in the next few days, and that's not forecast, we should be on a steady downward trend here."

Nonetheless, both the Mississippi and Missouri, the two longest rivers in the country, are leaving behind a numbing swath of destruction as they recede. The scars were evident throughout a two-hour aerial tour of the St. Louis region yesterday afternoon.

In Chesterfield, west of this city, a Coca-Cola truck could be seen bobbing through the water, and private jets at the suburban Spirit of St. Louis airport were pushed around like toys in a bathtub until they were wedged against a stand of trees.

South of St. Louis, a levee broke early yesterday morning in Monroe County, Ill., and flood water virtually covered the small town of Valmeyer and dozens of farms in a 20-square-mile area around it.

The area had previously been evacuated; no injuries were reported. There and up the river, near Alton, Ill., farm after farm was under water; often, the glistening tops of silos were the only evidence that structures used to be there. The width of the river could be measured in miles.

Even as most of the city of St. Louis was breathing a collective sigh of relief, there was still considerable danger there last night in the southernmost section, where 51 30,000-gallon propane tanks remained off their moorings at a Phillips Pipeline Co. storage area.

More than 9,000 people who lived near the tank storage area have been evacuated because officials fear that leaks in any of the tanks -- five have been detected so far -- could set off an explosive fireball.

Divers struggled to keep the tanks manually anchored, and fire crews kept the rows of tanks constantly sprayed with water.

"Anything could ignite it," warned the city's deputy fire chief, Gary Ludwig. "A spark, a cigarette. Anything."

While downtown St. Louis remained dry, evidence of the river's power was visible to the thousands of onlookers who came to peek over the flood wall.

For one thing, a floating Burger King restaurant, usually moored in front of the Arch, was torn loose by the river Sunday night and sent crashing into the Poplar Street Bridge, which sheared off the top third of the riverboat restaurant.

The Burger King unit was towed a few hundred yards downstream and wedged up against the flood wall to avoid further damage. Nearby, a similarly designed but undamaged McDonald's was still afloat and holding fast against the Mississippi.

One thing abundantly evident in the aerial tour was that the massive concrete flood wall in St. Louis, a yard thick in places, was proving far more successful in holding the water at bay than the earthen levees in smaller rural communities further up or down the river.

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