Midwest Towns Trust Levees as Mississippi Flood Crest Moves

Water seeped under the town's levee as the flooded Mississippi River crested Wednesday, closing part of downtown but leaving its buildings dry.

"I'm not worried," said Mike Wenskunas, who is restoring a riverfront restaurant that would be one of the first buildings flooded if the levee failed. "If it happens, it happens. It doesn't do any good to stay at home and fret about it."

The river crested at 20.7 feet Wednesday at the town of about 750 people, and town officials said their levees stood 2 feet above the water and were in good shape.

"The next 48 hours are going to be critical for us," Public Works Director Steve Nylan said.

Keithsburg is 35 miles downstream from Davenport, Iowa, where the river crested at 22.30 feet, its third highest on record there. The 1993 record is 22.6 feet.

Davenport residents said they felt the worst was over. "I got faith in the dikes," Ivan McNeff said as a sump pump fought the seepage in his basement. "I really don't foresee it breaking."

Between Keithsburg and Davenport, residents of Muscatine, Iowa, were confident of their 8-mile-long levee, which was built after a 1965 flood and has been reinforced and raised since it held back a 25-foot crest in 1993.

"I don't think people are too worried about it," said Butch Lange, owner of Lange's Marine, a boat dealership along Mississippi Drive in Muscatine. "It's not the first time we've been through this."

The Mississippi, swollen by rapidly melting snow and heavy rain in the upper Midwest, started rising over its banks two weeks ago in Minnesota, then flooded parts of the Wisconsin shore, and this week the flood crest is rolling past Iowa and Illinois.

However, it is not a repeat of the flooding in 1993 that devastated wide areas of the Mississippi Valley.

"The crests that we're looking at today and tomorrow are significantly lower than the '93 levels," Illinois Emergency Management agency spokeswoman Chris Tamminga said Wednesday.

In Wisconsin, about 2,000 homes were damaged by severe storms and flooding, and emergency officials said some $3 million was spent on flood control and other protective measures in counties along the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers. They said it would take weeks to estimate damages.

"Everything is still under water," said Jack Colvard, St. Croix County emergency management director.

In Iowa, prehistoric American Indian burial mounds dating from 500 B.C. to 1300 A.D. survived yet another Mississippi flood. The Effigy Mounds National Monument, near Marquette, was created in 1949 by President Truman to protect the grass-covered mounds, some of which are shaped like bears or birds.

"Water got on top of them, then receded. It's been doing it for hundreds of years," said Park Ranger Ken Block.

Flooding is expected to be confined to the upper Mississippi River, above the points where the Missouri and Illinois rivers join it, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Charles Camiloo said.

"The river widens out as it comes south," he said. "There's a lot more room for water."

Upriver at Port Byron, Ill., fire Capt. Mike Poel said the river claimed one house but most of the 1,500 residents live on a bluff out of the flood plain. Even those people who do still live on the riverfront have been through at least one flood and know what precautions to take.

"Occasionally, the river reminds them that they're not in charge," he said. "They learn to live with it, or they sell out."