BIG LAKE, Mo. – Inmates joined the National Guard in sandbagging efforts as floodwater crept toward homes and businesses across northwest and central Missouri.
Big Lake and some other small communities were already submerged. At Craig, inmates and National Guard members helped move sandbags to protect the water treatment plant, schools and an ethanol plant from the rising floodwater.
The water got within "a hillbilly's whisker from going over in several places," Holt County Sheriff Kirby Felumb said Thursday.
State officials said dozens of levees have been topped or breached since a weekend of drenching thunderstorms raised rivers and generated tornadoes that claimed 12 lives in Kansas.
The rain-swollen rivers and streams that make up the Missouri River system are cresting at different times as the water makes its way eastward toward St. Louis, where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi, said Suzanne Fortin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Parts of the Missouri, Platte and Grand rivers, along with their tributaries, will likely be at flood stage or higher until at least the weekend, adding to the misery for property owners and sending downstream residents scurrying to fill sandbags to protect their homes.
The biggest problems are on the Platte and Grand rivers, where floodwaters were still rising to near-historic levels, causing some road closures.
"It's going to get worse before it gets any better," said Julie Adolphson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill.
Most of the compromised levees shield agricultural land, but at least nine major, nonfederal levees that protect towns had been overrun, said Susie Stonner, a spokeswoman for the State Emergency Management Agency. No injuries or deaths had been reported, Stonner said.
The village of Big Lake was flooded Monday night and Tuesday after five levees on the nearby Missouri River and four smaller levees along the Tarkio River and Tarkio Creek were breached.
Matt Anderson, a volunteer firefighter at Big Lake, helped with an evacuation and recalled watching the rush of water hit the community early Tuesday morning and carry off large trees and even docks with the boats still attached.
"It just all of the sudden starting rolling in," Anderson said. "I don't know how fast it was coming, but it was coming too fast to stay around."
But even as floodwater crested at lower-than-predicted levels in many spots along Missouri rivers and streams, nervous residents cleared valuables from their homes.
Many had lived through the 1993 floods, one of the most costly in U.S. history.
"It just makes you nervous when you've been through that," said Saline County Sheriff Wally George, who remembers how the floodwater then mangle a stretch of railroad tracks. I'll never forget that sight. A set of straight railroad tracks it made into a 'U'. I'm amazed water can do that."
Rooftops were all that were showing of some of the 450 to 475 homes flooded in the town of Big Lake, said Charlie Triggs, chief of the volunteer fire department. The Missouri Water Patrol rescued about 20 people from a campsite and flooded homes in the area.
In Bigelow, Bill Hayworth watched as floodwaters rose around his home and the homes of his daughter and other relatives on Wednesday.
The 77-year-old lost his own home in nearby Big Lake in 1993 when a record-setting flood completely covered his house. He had flood insurance then, but bought no such insurance for his current home because Bigelow had no history of flooding.
"I am hoping FEMA will help us," he said, staring at the water that covered rows of planted tomatoes and sweet corn that he sells at flea markets. "I don't know what God had in mind for us on this — '93 and then this one. Maybe it's time to get on a mountaintop."