New Orleans Residents, Guard Members Help Missouri Town Prepare for Cresting Mississippi River

An artists' town where the Mississippi River is expected to crest at record levels Saturday was hanging on with prayers from strangers and volunteers from as far away as sympathetic New Orleans.

The historic town of 500 people, midway between St. Louis and Hannibal, was in the same situation as other northeast Missouri communities that were trudging on, giving up, or suspending efforts Tuesday as they faced the challenge of record or near-record flooding expected later in the week.

National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Fuchs said that over the next few days, the Mississippi River will equal or top the 1993 records in northeast Missouri towns, or come very close.

"This new forecast brings (new) records into possibility," he said.

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The picturesque, red-brick town's antique mall and restaurants were surrounded by floodwaters as National Guard members, Missouri inmates and college students tried to fortify the downtown with sandbags. A group from New Orleans, with painful memories of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, was due to arrive soon.

With five city blocks already swamped, Mayor Jo Anne Smiley said Clarksville was doing all it could to prepare for Saturday evening's projected 38-foot crest.

"We fix one thing and it breaks," she said. "Sewers are plugged up. We have leaks in walls, and people who need things. We're boating food to people.

"I cry a lot, but I get a lot of e-mail prayers. That helps."

In the downtown, where buildings house shops of artisans and craft people, Guard members and scores of volunteers worked on a massive sandbag wall, at places 12 feet wide and 8 feet tall, as the Mississippi River began to lap at its edges.

The Guard members, many of whom have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, were glad to be helping in Missouri.

A couple in their 20s, Amanda Elliott and Victor Wright, have been working with relatives and volunteers since Friday to save his aunt's home, where they're staying. A group used a boat to ferry sandbags through a yard filled with water, while Elliott, who has a sprained ankle, sat in lawn chairs with her foot elevated and opened bags for others to fill with sand.

"Yesterday morning, I just couldn't lift another sandbag," said the home's owner, Roberta Hilton of Laurie. "I own the house, but at one point, I thought, 'Is it worth it?"'

South of Clarksville in Lincoln County the situation was deteriorating rapidly. Around noon, floodwaters began overtopping levees east of Foley, Old Monroe and northeast of Elsberry, along Highway 79. Sandbagging efforts at the levee east of Foley were suspended, and the rapid water flow into low-lying areas was rising to 1993 levels. People were urged to evacuate.

To the north in Canton, emergency management director Jeff McReynolds said flood preparations would end Tuesday in anticipation of Thursday's predicted 27.7-foot crest. The river was at 26.2 feet in Canton on Tuesday.

Canton's levee is designed for 24.5 feet of water, but it has a 3-foot extension. Volunteers have added 2 feet on top of that.

"We feel pretty good," McReynolds said. "We've had 1,800 volunteers since the weekend. But it's D-Day today. We have to be done today. We're at 99 percent."

McReynolds said his main fear is that 10 days of prolonged high water will place too much pressure on the levee.

"Am I nervous? Hell yes," he said.

Levees at Canton and Hannibal, to the south, were the only ones from Burlington, Iowa, to St. Louis that held in what's known as the Great Flood of 1993. Authorities in both towns believe their levees will hold during this flood too. Hannibal is so confident that it suspended sandbagging of its levee and flood wall on Tuesday.

"We're in pretty good shape," Hannibal Deputy Police Chief Lt. James Hark said. "The river has dropped a tad because of levee breaks north of us."

The river at Hannibal is projected to crest at 31.8 feet at 1 p.m. Friday, which would match the old record set in 1993.

Downtown businesses, including sites of the city's most famous son, Mark Twain, were dry. "People are walking and driving," Hark said. "It's business as usual."

Water covered some blocks that were transformed from residential to green space after the '93 flood.

In La Grange, just south of Canton, 15 percent of the town of 1,000, which does not have a levee, had evacuated. Most of the town sits on a bluff, but some homes and businesses are in low-lying places.

"The town will come back," City Administrator Mark Campbell said. "But how it comes back may have to be rethought. Homes in the flood plain may have to move out and (placed) in a park."

The tiny town of Alexandria, population 166, just south of the Iowa border abandoned sandbagging efforts on its 27-foot levee and evacuated Monday.

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North of Alexandria, most of the 100 residents of St. Francisville on the Des Moines River had evacuated. It has no levee.

The Humane Society of Missouri opened a temporary shelter for pets Tuesday in Bowling Green at the Pike County Fairgrounds. People also could drop off pets at the Hannibal Humane Society or the Canton Veterinary Clinic for transfer to Bowling Green.

Lt. Governor Peter Kinder said that by late Tuesday, he will have deployed nearly 500 National Guard members to flood-stricken communities. The Missouri Department of Corrections has dispatched 186 offenders to help fortify sandbags in Clarksville, Canton, Louisiana and Marion County.