Bush surveys flood areas

Mississippi River overflows 10 levees

June 20, 2008|By Richard Fausset and Jenny Jarvie | Richard Fausset and Jenny Jarvie,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WINFIELD, Mo. - Water from the swollen Mississippi River surged over more than 10 levees yesterday, flooding huge swaths of Missouri farmland as thousands of volunteers continued to pile up sandbags in a desperate bid to protect their communities.

The river blasted a 150-foot breach Wednesday night in a levee east of Winfield, a rural and commuter city of 1,200 about an hour north of St. Louis.

Volunteers from as far away as Utah gathered in the small Missouri town yesterday to shovel sand into bags, but another levee breached and then another. Hundreds of homes filled with water. Some were torn off their foundations and seen floating down the river.

"The entire eastern part of the county is under water, and the water keeps on rising," said Cpl. Andy Binder, spokesman for the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department.

Yesterday morning, President Bush arrived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator R. David Paulison to take a helicopter tour of the flood-ravaged farmland.

"I know a lot of farmers and cattlemen are hurting right now, along with the city people," Bush said during a stop at Kirkwood Community College. "Our hearts and prayers, from around the nation, go out to people here."

John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, also arrived in Iowa yesterday. He toured Columbus Junction, a small town of 1,900 nestled where the Iowa and Cedar rivers meet. A newly built levy was still in place along the riverbank, but water had crested over the barrier, covering the lower half of a Subway, a Ten Pin bowling alley, and a Dollar General store.

Already, severe storms and flooding have killed 24 people and injured 148 in six states and forced tens of thousands to evacuate their homes. As of yesterday morning, FEMA and other federal agencies had distributed enough water for 1.1 million people, 12.8 million sandbags, 2,500 tarps and 4,000 rolls of plastic sheeting.

Though the flood has receded in many places, the waters are flowing downstream and the Mississippi River continues to rise.

"The concern now is the Mississippi River between the Quad Cities and St. Louis," said Bob Powers, deputy assistant administrator for FEMA.

The river is expected to crest today near Hannibal and tomorrow in St. Louis and Clarksville, Iowa. But the flood risk is lessened in St. Louis because the Mississippi widens there and meets several tributaries with lower-than-normal water levels.

National Guard troops and volunteers were in a race against time to save the low-lying Winfield. A secondary levee system that rings an area closer to downtown was not high enough in spots to handle the 39-foot crest that is expected Sunday. The rest would have to be filled in with sandbags.

Yesterday was the third day that hundreds of residents and volunteers gathered behind Winfield High School to shovel sand into bags.

In the afternoon, dozens stood in a hot gravel parking lot, shoveling and bagging and loading the full bags onto pallets, which were then put on large flatbed trucks.

By lunchtime, about 30,000 sandbags had been put in place, but Binder estimated that about 170,000 more would be needed.

Richard Fausset and Jenny Jarvie write for the Los Angeles Times.

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