Flooding Strains Home and Heart

While rising waters are still threatening the lower portions of the Mississippi River, residents in Iowa and other states are beginning the arduous task of cleaning up the aftermath.

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[Map: Winfield, Missouri]
By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 22, 2008

FOLEY, Mo., June 21 -- Weary neighbors of the Mississippi River are bracing for yet another wave of high water that could test soggy levees and the spirit of thousands of volunteers who have labored to outwit and outmuscle the worst flood to hit the American heartland in years.

Water levels, which had dropped as levees broke and tributaries ebbed, began climbing again Saturday in several Missouri towns. New crests were expected Sunday or Monday.

Although experts think the worst is over and that key fortifications will hold, the fresh wave threatens to add to the hundreds of thousands of acres of rich Missouri and Illinois bottomland now underwater.

When the season's damage is calculated, the casualty count will include an estimated 4 million acres of farmland, several thousand flooded basements and a large number of drowned hogs. Analysts think the loss of corn and soybeans that cannot be replanted in time for this year's harvest could add to rising global food prices.

Swamps of standing water are already inspiring warnings about disease. Tetanus shots are being offered free. Notices taped to city hall doors warn of the dangers of a more virulent mosquito season. Renewed debates are underway about levees, flood insurance and the perils of global warming.

The river, as it did in 1993 and 1973 and years before, co-starred in an epic.

On a dry summer evening, it would take a good 40 minutes to walk the 2 1/2 miles of cropland that separates Highway 79 in Foley from the Mississippi. These days, getting across takes a boat, like a skiff that skimmed the gray water as it flowed toward town, lapping at dozens of front doors.

The nearly incomprehensible volume of water moving downstream is a ferocious test of heart and engineering alike.

Losses are chalked up one at a time. But there are occasional wins, too: Upstream in Clarksville, a sturdy wall of sandbags protects Sunfire Pottery, the Howard Street Dance Studio and the dream of a reborn river town. Around the clock, shopkeepers joined neighbors and inmates from nine prisons to defend the town as friends brought supper and homemade pie.

Clarksville's unpaid mayor, Jo Anne Smiley, overseeing a staff of zero because all four city workers had quit, began the flood season by studying sandbagging techniques on the Internet. The retired chorus teacher said: "I didn't know what to do. I just did what intuition said."

Far north of here, in Cedar Rapids, where the waters are mercifully receding, Michael Papich intends to swab and rebuild his sodden funeral home in Czech Village, a working-class neighborhood.

Muck that reeked of old riverbed caked the floors, banisters and a 1934 embalming table. A photograph of the founder lay on the floor in a heavy gilt frame. The jumble of caskets, lamps and chairs made it seem to Papich "as if this was a big washing machine."


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