Levee Break Forces Hand of Those Who Held Out

The Residents along the Mississippi River are experiencing the worst flooding in 15 years.
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008

Floodwaters surging down the Mississippi River broke through an earthen levee near the eastern Missouri town of Winfield yesterday, overwhelming a massive sandbagging effort and forcing die-hard residents to evacuate their homes.

The Pin Oak agricultural levee gave way shortly before 5:30 a.m. Central time, the latest of dozens of such structures to be breached or overtopped by floodwaters that have poured into the Mississippi after heavy rains in May and June. Officials said muskrat burrows weakened the levee, contributing to the breach.

The National Weather Service subsequently issued a flash-flood warning for eastern Lincoln County, Mo., saying that "water is expected to ultimately inundate the eastern portion of the town of Winfield." The flooding threatened to swamp about 100 homes and 3,000 acres of farmland.

Undaunted by the breach, residents and National Guardsmen used sandbags to build another levee about four feet high in an effort to protect the threatened homes.

Many of the homes in Winfield, a small farming community about 45 miles northwest of St. Louis, already had been evacuated by the time the levee broke, but some residents had chosen to make a stand.

As water poured through a levee breach 20 to 30 feet wide early yesterday morning, emergency sirens wailed and rescue workers went door-to-door to tell people to leave, news services reported.

"The levee broke! Get out!" sheriff's deputies yelled to sleeping residents.

River water had lapped at sandbags atop the 2.3-mile levee for about a week, and ultimately "there was more water than there was levee," said Alan Dooley, a spokesman for the St. Louis district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"This should not be interpreted as a failure of the levee" or a failure by the volunteers and National Guardsmen who had fought to save it, he said. More than 400,000 sandbags were used to raise and reinforce the Pin Oak levee, including about 30,000 that were applied overnight.

"This levee had water against it at or above its designed height for some time," Dooley said. When that happens, the soil gets saturated and loses strength, he said.

The floodwaters have broken through or overtopped more than three dozen levees along the Mississippi, swamped river towns such as Foley, Mo., and covered millions of acres of agricultural land, causing billions of dollars in losses and driving up food prices.

But higher levees designed to protect urban areas are expected to hold at St. Louis when the river crests there Sunday evening, authorities said. The crest is forecast at 38.6 feet in the Mississippi at St. Louis -- 8.6 feet above flood stage but 11 feet below the record level set during the great flood of 1993.

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