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Saturated Levees Creating Unease for Missouri Riverfront Towns

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Warning sirens blared in West Alton Monday night as 590 residents were advised to evacuate because of a levee breach in northeastern St. Charles County. (KMOX/Michael Calhoun)

Warning sirens blared in West Alton Monday night as 590 residents were advised to evacuate because of a levee breach in northeastern St. Charles County. (KMOX/Michael Calhoun)

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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – It’s stable for now, but crews are keeping a close eye on the saturated Consolidated North County Levee shielding the raging Mississippi River from several riverfront towns.

The National Weather Service in St. Louis says there are multiple spots of potential failures along that levee between Portage Des Sioux and West Alton prompting them to issue a flash flood watch through Thursday morning for that area.

The Consolidated North County Levee was breached twice this week prompting a voluntary evacuation of about 43 homes in West Alton, Mo.

Out of fear that another levee breach may isolate some towns emergency management crews have built a rock berm on Highway 94 to keep that key road open. But Rivers Pointe Fire Chief Rick Pender says there is still concern.

“There are a lot of sections of the levee that do have bags on them, but it’s still water on bags,” said Pender. “Just a general consensus if you would talk to anybody as long as you have water on the levee there is always a threat.”

On Tuesday West Alton residents scrambled to pack up their homes after a levee breach sent water gushing toward 43 homes and six businesses. Pender said most of the homes are raised on stilts or mounds, but about a dozen took on water. No one was endangered, but the affected homes are essentially islands.

“You have to use a boat to get to them,” Pender said.

West Alton Mayor Willie Richter says it’s way too soon to say the worst is over. He’s urging his town’s residents to hang in there.

Further south

The rivers are receding at many locations, but a crest 13 feet above flood stage isn’t expected until Thursday in Cape Girardeau County. Allenville, a small southeast Missouri town, is accessible only by a county road, which may become impassable, said Eric McGowen, spokesman for Cape Girardeau County emergency management.

Isolation or not, McGowen said people in all but four of the 43 households are staying put, going to and from their homes by boat if necessary.

“We will be watching the weather forecast very closely today,” McGowen said.

Neighboring Dutchtown, with about 100 residents, was holding its own after furious sandbagging, but most roads in were closed, including two state routes.

Mississippi River Barge Industry

Flooding was also creating a hindrance to commerce, especially for barges that rely on the big rivers to move their goods. Debris is being swept downriver, forcing the closure of more than 250 miles of the vital commerce corridor from Iowa to the St. Louis harbor. Dozens of barges idled along that stretch due to closed locks.

“The drift out there is ridiculous,” said Mike Petersen of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It looks like a forest of trees floating past St. Louis.”

The fallout was far-reaching: Grain shipments north of St. Louis couldn’t get to the Gulf Coast for export. Everything from fertilizer to construction materials couldn’t be sent upriver. And the Mississippi River closure cut off barge access to the Illinois River, a gateway to the Great Lakes.

That navigational headache comes months after shipping along the Mississippi was perilously close to being halted altogether after the nation’s worst drought in decades made river levels nearly too low for barge traffic.

Still, the American Waterways Operators barge trade group downplayed the situation, noting the shutdown affects a snippet of the many thousands of miles making up inland U.S. river system.

Spokeswoman Ann McCulloch said “dealing with the river’s highs and lows is something the industry manages every day.”

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