GULFPORT, Ill. – Floodwaters breached two levees in western Illinois on Wednesday and threatened more Mississippi River towns in Missouri after inundating much of Iowa for the past week.
The breaches 45 miles south of Gulfport flooded farmland near the hamlet of Meyer and south of there in the Indian Graves levee district, Adams County Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Julie Shepard said.
Meyer, a town of 40 to 50 people, had to be evacuated, and authorities patrolled the town Wednesday morning to make sure no one was left behind, she said.
Officials monitored levees in other Mississippi River towns in Illinois and Missouri in hopes that they would hold.
Flooding that began in eastern Iowa caused more than $1.5 billion in damage as it crept south toward the Mississippi. About 25,000 people in Cedar Rapids were forced from their homes, 19 buildings at the University of Iowa were flooded and water treatment plants in several cities were knocked out.
Now the floodwaters are a problem for communities such as Gulfport and Clarksville, Mo.
Authorities rescued people by helicopter, boat and four-wheeler on Tuesday after the river broke through a levee in Gulfport.
Lois Russell was among those who watched her house get inundated with water.
"What else am I going to do? Where else am I going to go?" said the 83-year-old Russell, who had lived in the white farmhouse for 57 years.
Later in the week, the Mississippi is expected to threaten a host of others communities, leading officials to consider evacuation plans and begin sandbagging.
In Clarksville — a historic artists' town of 500 between St. Louis and Hannibal, Mo. — National Guard members, inmates and students were sandbagging. Five blocks were already swamped, but volunteers were doing their best to save buildings housing the shops of artisans and craftsmen.
"We fix one thing and it breaks," Mayor Jo Anne Smiley said. "Sewers are plugged up. We have leaks in walls and people who need things. We're boating in food to people."
But even as the water jeopardized scores of additional homes and businesses, officials said the damage could have been worse if the federal government had not purchased low-lying land after historic floods in 1993 that caused $12 billion in damage.
Since then, the government bought out more than 9,000 homeowners, turning much of the land into parks and undeveloped areas that can be allowed to flood with less risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has moved or flood-proofed about 30,000 properties.
The effort required whole communities to be moved, such as Rhineland, Mo., and Valmeyer, Ill.
In Iowa, FEMA spent $1.6 million to buy out residents of Elkport, population 80, and then knock down the village's remaining buildings. Some residents moved to Garber, Elkport's twin city across the Turkey River, but others abandoned the area.
"There's nothing there in Elkport anymore," said Helen Jennings of Garber. "They built new houses in different places."
Some of those who stayed are paying a price.
The federal government bought about a quarter of the homes in Chelsea, Iowa, after the 1993 floods, but most of the 300 residents stayed. At least 10 homes are now inundated by the Iowa River to their first floors.
Residents take it in stride, said Mayor Roger Ochs.
"For the most part, it's another flood," he said. "For Chelsea, it's more of an inconvenience."
On Tuesday, people were urged to evacuate an area near Gulfport as floodwaters threatened about 12 square miles of farmland. Henderson County Deputy Sheriff Donald Seitz said a major highway could be under 10 feet of water by midday Wednesday.
On the Iowa side of the river, a sandbagging operation was moved south to the outskirts of Burlington after floodwaters streamed across state Highway 99.
Oakville Apostolic Church "is now an island," said Carly Wagenbach, who was taking food to levee workers.
Officials were also concerned about the integrity of a levee that protects a drainage area south of Oakville.
"It's outrageous," said Steve Poggemiller. "We're hanging on by a thread — or a sandbag."
Jeff Campbell, a farmer carrying sandbags on his four-wheeler, said he spotted pigs swimming away from a flooded hog farm near Oakville. They were climbing a levee, poking holes in the plastic that covered it, he said.
One tired pig was lying at the bottom of the levee "like a pink sandbag," Campbell said.
Reports of raw sewage and farm runoff in floodwaters raised concerns about public health. But experts said most people are smart enough to avoid the tainted water. "Typically we don't see the outbreaks of diseases that people fear," said Mike Allred of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The rising water forced the closure of the Mississippi bridge in Burlington and stopped car traffic on the bridge in Fort Madison. The bridge's railroad tracks remained open. A bridge downriver in Keokuk also remained open.
To the north in Cedar Rapids, floodwaters had dropped enough that officials let hundreds of people return to their damaged homes and businesses.
"It's obviously much more shocking when you walk in the door for the first time and see what happened," said Amy Wyss, watching sullenly as a giant blower was used to dry out her upscale wine bar, Zins. "I don't think you can be prepared for this, even if you think you are."
The National Weather Service expects crests this week along some Mississippi River communities near St. Louis to come close to those of 1993. The river at Canton, Mo., could reach 27.5 feet on Thursday, just shy of the 27.88 mark of 1993 and more than 13 feet above flood stage.
Crests at Quincy, Ill., and Hannibal, Mo., are expected to climb to about 15 feet above flood stage, narrowly short of the high water from 15 years ago.
In St. Louis, the Mississippi is projected to crest Saturday at 39.8 feet, about 10 feet above flood stage but still a foot lower than in 1993.