Levees Hold Back Cresting Mississippi River; Aid Requests Mount

June 23, 2008

Walls and levees held back the cresting Mississippi River Sunday as requests for government aid poured in from homeowners and businesses swamped by the worst Midwest flooding in 15 years.

Across from St. Louis, where the river remained near the crest reached Friday, Cahokia Mayor Frank Bergman said his city of 17,000 had escaped disaster by a few feet.

“We got lucky,” he said as he walked a 50-year-old network of levees and flood walls that withstood the river’s rise. River water that seeped under the levees at a few spots had been cordoned off by walls of sandbags.

The deluge that swamped Iowa cities and farms two weeks ago has washed down the most important U.S. waterway, swallowing up towns and thousands of acres of prime crop land in the heart of the world’s largest grain and food exporter.

Drier weather in the past week, and more than two dozen levee breaks as the Mississippi overtopped its banks, appeared to spare downstream cities a repeat of the devastation seen in the last major floods in 1993.

The storms and flooding have been blamed for 24 deaths and billions of dollars in damage since late May that will take months to clean up. More than 40,000 people have been displaced, most of them in Iowa.

Bridges and highways have been swamped, factories shut down, water and power utilities damaged, and the earnings of railroads, farmers and many other businesses disrupted.

Fears that as many as 5 million acres of corn and soybeans have been lost in the fertile U.S. corn belt pushed up corn and other food commodity prices to record highs and worsened market fears of spiraling world food prices.

With no new levee breaks since Friday to relieve the flow of the Mississippi, river levels rose over the weekend north of St. Louis. The National Weather Service forecast water levels to ease by as much as a foot a day after the river crests. Monitoring the levees remained a round-the-clock task.

“We’re still holding,” said John Hark, the emergency management director for the city of Hannibal, Missouri, where every fraction of an inch the Mississippi rose or fell was tracked.

“We crested at 29.28 feet and we’re probably going to sit here awhile — for the next six to 12 hours — before we see any meaningful downward movement. It went down about 1/100th of an inch here just now and that was encouraging,” Hark said.

Some 130 miles downstream from St. Louis, the Mississippi was expected to crest at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on Monday at 41.5 feet, also well below the 1993 peak of 48.5 feet.

Cahokia, a hardscrabble town of mostly African Americans, is one of several municipalities trying to get voters to approve a sales tax increase to make desperately needed repairs to 20 miles of levees.

“It’s going to help people realize the seriousness of it,” Bergman said. “Levees are like rubber bands. They can only be stretched and tested so many times before they break.”

Next door to Cahokia, the economically depressed city of East St. Louis appeared to have been spared a potential disaster as its outdated levees held.

Iowa was hardest hit by the flooding, but parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Missouri have also flooded.

In Cedar Rapids and neighboring hamlets along the Cedar and Iowa Rivers, where most of the flood damage was uninsured, residents were weighing whether to stay or leave.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had initially received more than 19,000 requests for help. U.S. government aid was expected to be in the billions of dollars.

President Bush toured some of the devastation in Iowa Thursday, and the White House said relief would be made available from $4 billion in the government’s disaster fund.

Flood relief was rapidly becoming a political issue in a U.S. election year. Republican presidential candidate John McCain toured Iowa Thursday, separately from Bush, while Democratic candidate Barack Obama filled sandbags in Quincy in his home state of Illinois earlier in the week.

Iowa’s Democratic Gov. Chet Culver asked both candidates not to visit Iowa until after the crisis had passed.

(Writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Peter Bohan)

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