By JIM SUHR and JIM SALTER
A restaurant sits surrounded by floodwater Saturday, April 20, 2013, in Louisiana, Mo. Communities along the Mississippi River and other rain-engorged waterways are waging feverish bids to hold back floodwaters that may soon approach record levels. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
CLARKSVILLE, Mo. (AP) — An all-too-familiar springtime ritual played out around the nation’s heartland this weekend as volunteers, National Guardsmen and even prison inmates joined together in an effort to ward off fast-rising floodwaters.
Dangerously high waters dotted at least six Midwestern states following torrential rains this past week that dumped up to 7 inches in some locations. Record flooding was possible in some places as dozens of rivers overflowed their banks.
The water levels forced evacuations, closed roads, swamped hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and shut down much of the upper Mississippi River to barge traffic. Even two Mississippi River bridges were closed. Several Mississippi River towns north of St. Louis were expected to see crests sometime Sunday, including Clarksville, Mo.
Volunteers in the tiny community have worked endlessly since Wednesday to build a makeshift sandbag levee that seemed to be holding as the crest— expected to be 11 feet above flood stage — approached. Even prisoners from far-away Jefferson City were brought in to help.
After four 12-hour days of sandbagging, Trish Connelly, 57, was exhausted but optimistic the town would beat back the river. Her plan to open a new fine arts gallery downtown this weekend were on hold “until we know what the river is going to do,” she said.
“This is frustrating for people,” Connelly said. “This isn’t as bad as 2008, but thank God it stopped raining.”
Gov. Jay Nixon on Saturday toured the unprotected-by-choice town that was also flooded in 2008, 2001, 1998, 1995 and many times before that.
“The water is continuing to rise but it is our full hope and expectation that these walls will hold,” Nixon said of the sandbag levees. Clarksville has a flood protection system in which a temporary levee — aluminum slats filled with sand — can be built if the river rises, but the Mississippi was too quick this time.
Mississippi River levels vary greatly but are typically highest in the spring, so minor flooding is not uncommon. But when river levels exceed flood stage by several feet, serious problems can occur. For properties that would be heavily affected by the flood, they can look further for services that would help them tremendously.
Travel was at a standstill on most of the Mississippi between the Quad Cities and St. Louis. The Army Corps of Engineers closed several locks, halting barge traffic. Recreational traffic was halted, too, including the Mark Twain Riverboat that offers excursions at scenic Hannibal, Mo. Owner and pilot Steve Terry has moored the ship since Thursday, with no end in sight.
Even crossing the river was difficult. One of two bridges at Quincy, Ill., closed Friday, and the narrow two-lane bridge at the Missouri town of Louisiana was shut down Saturday. To get across, people in the Louisiana, Mo., area either had to drive 35 miles north to Hannibal, Mo., or 50-plus miles south to suburban St. Louis.
Penny Scranton’s normal 13-minute commute from Rockport, Ill., to the BP convenience store in Louisiana turned into an hour and a half.
“There are others worse off,” she shrugged.
Among those worse off was Louisiana resident Erica Campbell, whose rented home in a low-lying area of town was flooded for the second time in three years. She’s had enough. Campbell, her husband and their eight kids are packing up.
“We’re planning to move to the country — as far away from water as I can get,” Campbell, 35, said.
Smaller rivers across the Midwest were swelling, too. In Illinois, heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar will shut down its East Peoria, Ill., factory Sunday as the Illinois River approaches an expected 30-foot crest early next week.
Several Indiana towns were threatened by high water, forcing hundreds of evacuations. The Wabash River in Tippecanoe County reached more than 14 feet above flood stage on Saturday, the highest level since 1958. Indiana Gov. Mitch Pence took a helicopter tour Saturday of damage in Kokomo, Tipton and Elwood.
The mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich., declared a state of emergency Saturday, the same day high water forced the evacuation of the Courtyard Marriott Hotel and an apartment building.
Salter reported from St. Louis. AP Photographer Jeff Roberson in Clarksville and Louisiana contributed to this report.