Midwest Fights Flood Waters; Coast Guard Closes Stretch of Mississippi River

The Coast Guard ordered all boat and barge traffic from a 403-mile stretch of the Mississippi River Monday, saying fast-rising water and treacherous currents made the waterway unsafe.

The river was closed from Minneapolis south to Muscatine, Iowa, and the weather service predicted flooding could approach or exceed 1993 levels. The river was expected to crest at 20-22 feet early next week at Davenport, Iowa, where the record was 22.6 feet in 1993.

The forecast prompted Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to issue an advance disaster proclamation for the 10 counties along the river. "This will put the state in a position to provide assistance to those communities that may be affected by flooding,'' he said.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum declared a state of emergency Monday for nine counties south of the point where the Mississippi begins to form the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"The potential flooding could have devastating impacts on these river communities,'' McCallum said. "We need to do whatever is necessary to protect lives and limit damage to property.''

McCallum took a helicopter tour and said Fountain City, about 40 miles north of La Crosse, appeared to be the hardest hit.

"It's going to get worse,'' said Al Blencoe, an emergency dispatcher in La Crosse, about 150 miles southeast of Minneapolis. The river there was at 16 feet Monday, 4 feet above flood stage.

Some residents of nearby French Island left to stay with friends and relatives. "Unfortunately, when you live in a river town, you have to take it in stride,'' said Brian Larson.

The river was expected to crest near La Crosse at 17 feet early Wednesday, just short of the record 17.9 feet set in 1965. "It's been coming up a good foot every day,'' said La Crosse homeowner Mike Flaten from the cab of a front-end loader filled with sandbags.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter at a La Crosse middle school and was helped by the Salvation Army in providing food for those who left their homes. J.K. Strong of the Red Cross estimated that at least a few hundred people had voluntarily left their homes by Monday evening.

The rising river submerged a stretch of railroad track near Minneapolis, forcing Amtrak to put passengers onto buses between Minneapolis and Chicago.

Flood warnings were in effect from the Twin Cities in Minnesota along the Minnesota-Wisconsin state line to Central Iowa.

In St. Paul, Minn., the National Guard again turned to civilians for help to raise the dike keeping the Mississippi at bay from a headquarters building at the city's flooded downtown airport. The facility, which mainly handles private air traffic and has been closed since last week, houses Guard aviation units and helicopter operations.

More than 350 National Guard soldiers are on active duty in the state because of flooding, but most are deployed in the west on the Red and Minnesota rivers.

At Minneapolis, the Mississippi is expected to rise another 6 inches before cresting early next week, said weather service hydrologist Gary McDevitt. He said levees would get their toughest test since flooding in 1965.

Wisconsin officials closed the Mississippi River bridge connecting Wabasha, Minn., with Nelson, Wis., because floodwaters were lapping over the approach on the Wisconsin side. Communities along other rivers in Minnesota and North Dakota waited to see if sandbag levees would hold.

Light snow fell on the Red River Valley on Monday, but the weather service said it would not affect the river, which crested during the weekend and started to recede. The valley is along the Minnesota-North Dakota state line.

The river crested at 36.7 feet in Fargo, N.D., Saturday and stood at 35.1 feet Monday. The weather service said it should fall to 31 feet by Saturday. Flood stage in Fargo is 17 feet.

A search resumed Monday for a 19-year-old man missing in the Minnesota River near Shakopee, Minn. His older brother was rescued Sunday. The two men had driven onto a flooded road, bypassing warning signs, and were swept away by rushing water in the area southwest of Minneapolis.

Nearly two-thirds of Minnesota's counties had reported some flooding. Only a few homes were evacuated but many of the state's rivers have yet to crest.