Mississippi River Towns Brace for the Worst
Floodwaters Swell Major Waterway

By Kari Lydersen and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

GULFPORT, Ill., June 17 -- Floodwaters that wreaked havoc along Illinois and Iowa rivers have poured into the Mississippi, creating a torrent of water that threatens to spread the misery to historic riverside towns on the way to St. Louis and beyond.

Early Tuesday morning, a levee burst in Gulfport, flooding thousands of acres of the country's most fertile farmland, swamping the downtown and forcing the closure of highways, rail lines and a major bridge across the Mississippi. More than a dozen people were rescued, some of them by helicopter, officials said. Among those saved was a motorist who was stranded on top of his car amid the rising waters.

The river was expected to crest Tuesday afternoon in Gulfport, as hundreds of volunteers in towns further downstream desperately laid sandbags and built berms in hopes of staving off the water.

"Hopefully, it'll hold," said Lloyd Wellington, 60, in nearby Gladstone, Ill., as volunteers sped around him on all-terrain vehicles, transporting sandbags filled by National Guardsmen outside a local carwash.

The National Weather Service predicted that the river as soon as Tuesday evening would reach levels above previous catastrophic floods. Forecasters said they expected the river to crest at Burlington, Iowa, by Wednesday; at Quincy, Ill., and the Missouri towns of Hannibal (of Mark Twain fame) and Clarksville by Thursday or Friday; and at St. Louis by Saturday.

In Washington, President Bush promised to speed federal disaster relief to flood-ravaged Midwestern communities and said he plans to visit Iowa on Thursday to meet with state and local officials.

Speaking after a meeting at the White House with federal disaster officials, Bush said the government is prepared to provide short- and long-term help to people whose homes were flooded, as well as aid to farmers and ranchers whose land has been inundated.

Bush urged Congress to use a supplemental appropriations bill to replenish a federal disaster relief fund in preparation for other natural disasters this year.

"The first task at hand is to deal with the floodwaters, to anticipate where the flooding may next occur and to work with the state and local authorities to deal with their response," Bush told reporters. "Now that the water is beginning to recede, the question is, how do we help with the recovery?"

But, as the water retreated in parts of central Iowa, it inexorably rose along the Mississippi, swelled by floodwaters from its tributaries.

The federal government fears that the river could overflow 27 levees along the Mississippi if forecasts are accurate and a major sandbagging effort does not raise the levees sufficiently, the Associated Press reported. Workers were busy placing millions of sandbags atop levees in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.

In Keokuk, Iowa, near the Missouri border, Iowa Homeland Security spokesman Brett Voorhees said officials and local volunteers were gearing up. "It will be a challenge, but the good news is, not as much as a challenge as we've already faced in Cedar Rapids," he said.

The Mississippi has been closed to commercial traffic for an almost 300-mile stretch for more than five days since record river levels overwhelmed locks. River- and lake-related tourism has been halted, a severe blow for towns that rely primarily on farming and tourism to survive.

Many farmers in this area have no flood insurance, having thought they were outside areas that would flood. The low-lying region around Gulfport flooded in 1965 and 1993, but the current inundation is much greater, according to local residents.

Lois Russell, 83, was surrounded by four generations of family as she watched floodwaters cover her hundreds of acres of corn and soybean fields. Old cornstalks bobbed in the water as it rose several inches a minute on the road where Russell stood, a road that normally would have led to her house over a mile away. "That's it for this summer," she said. "I had just installed an irrigation system under one of those fields. It was not even used. I guess I won't need it now."

The loss of crops across the Midwest has helped push corn prices to record highs in the past seven days. It could be weeks before fields can be pumped dry.

At the White House, Bush assured Midwesterners that the federal government will provide short-term help with housing. He said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will set up a task force to provide long-term help for people to get back into their homes.

"I've unfortunately been to too many disasters as president," he said. "But one thing I've always learned is that the American citizen can overcome these disasters."

Branigin reported from Washington.

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