Rivers falling slowly after crests

(Originally published in the Telegraph on 6/30/08)

WEST ALTON, Mo. - The worst might be over for residents of flooded towns in the area.

The National Weather Service reported cresting in recent days for the Mississippi River at West Alton and Hamburg, Ill., as well as the Illinois River at Hardin, but officials warned residents to remain cautious.

"Barring rainfall up north, I would think we could continue to see decreasing stages," said George Stringham, spokesman for the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Mississippi crested Monday at West Alton at 33.1 feet, Stringham said.

"It has been floating there since basically around midday (Sunday), and it's going to gradually start dropping off here in the next 24 hours," he said.

The Weather Service predicts the water will fall to 32.8 feet on Tuesday and 32.4 feet on Wednesday.

West Alton's local levee district and the Corps of Engineers have watched for and reacted against sand boils, and the National Guard "has been monitoring the levees every hour to make sure there aren't any issues," said Chief Richard Pender of Rivers Pointe Fire and Rescue.

"All of the sandbags that have been put in place are holding well," Pender said. "Last I heard this morning, all the sand boils are running clear, so that's a good sign, and there are no new sand boils to report."

The Corps of Engineers has contained sand boils - leaks caused by water seeping through the bottom of the levee -by using sandbags to "build a ring around them, like a well, to help equalize the pressure."

Although the sandbagging operation was completed Saturday, the city of West Alton holds approximately 1,200 extra bags in reserve, in case of an emergency, Pender said.

A "skeleton crew" of 20 to 25 National Guardsmen remained in place Monday in West Alton.

"They're providing security," Pender said. "We've had a lot of sightseers wanting to go up on the levee," which is considered trespassing on private property.

Alderwoman Beth Machens said the flood level was falling "very, very slowly" but was at least "headed in the right direction."

The elevated water might retreat within its banks during the last week of July, Machens said.

"That will depend on the Missouri River," she said. "The Missouri River dumps into the Mississippi below the point. If the Missouri River gets above a flood stage, the Mississippi backs up."

The Illinois River crested at Hardin on Saturday, Stringham said. The level fell to 35.5 feet on Monday and is predicted to retreat slowly to 35.2 feet today and 34.8 feet Wednesday.

Backwater from the Mississippi River caused the Illinois River to flood, said Hardin Mayor Phil Gress.

"Water coming down from the Mississippi has caused it to back up around Grafton," he said. "The Illinois River has not been able to drain down the Mississippi."

Hardin's sandbagging effort secured several homes and businesses. Although the Barefoot Bar was forced to close because of water in its parking lot, "a real estate office, another restaurant and a little drive-in were kept open, because we sandbagged," Gress said.

"We've probably got a few sandbags in some places that didn't get touched by the water," he said. "This is nothing like 1993. We don't have near as many bags to remove."

Over the weekend, the Illinois Department of Transportation poured 500 tons of gravel over a 200-yard stretch of the Illinois River Road, Gress said. The construction raised the road between 6 and 8 inches and will keep traffic moving between Hardin and Brussels.

Hamburg is located between the locks and dams on the Mississippi at Clarksville and Winfield on the Missouri side. The Mississippi at Clarksville crested first on June 23 at 36.7 feet. Water levels fell until rain in northern Missouri caused another crest on June 27 at 36.5 feet, said Benjamin Sipprell, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service office in St. Charles.

"Everything is under control in town," Hamburg Mayor Jim Fortner said Monday. "Everything is kind of at a steady lull there. We're all still a little nervous about the water, but it has been dropping a couple inches every day.

"The sandbag wall is holding," he said. "We had a few instances where the water boiled up underneath the wall, but we were able manage those quite well."

The Mississippi fell to 34.9 feet at Clarksville on Monday and was expected to drop another 7 inches by this morning, Sipprell said.

Stringham said lower flood levels do not eliminate safety issues.

"It's easiest to think that now the crest is past, that the danger is past, also," Stringham said. "Even though the crest is past, there's still water on the levee. If you're unfortunate enough to have had to evacuate your house and your business, be cautious of going back into those buildings, because who knows what (damage) could have happened?

"If the hair stands up on the back of your neck, take a step back and reassess the situation. Use your noggin."

Meteorologists are predicting more wet weather in the area over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

"A frontal disturbance looks to drive through Thursday and Friday," Sipprell said. The slow-moving cold front still was "getting its act together over the Pacific Northwest" as of Monday morning.

Butch Dye of the Weather Service said it expects an average of 1.21 inches of precipitation for the St. Louis area, with a 50 percent chance of rain on Thursday, Thursday night and Friday.

Russell Errett with the Corps of Engineers' Water Control Branch, said he does not expect the rain to cause new crests in river towns' flood levels.

"The most it could do is slow down the fall or maybe stop the fall. It couldn't reverse it," the hydraulic engineer said. "It would take quite a bit of flow to turn it around."

Errett said the rate of drainage increases with time.

"There's just a lot of water in the system, and it just takes a lot of momentum" for levels to fall, Errett said. "It's kind of like a chain reaction. Each (town's flood level) has to start falling at a similar rate before it can accelerate."


* HIGHEST CRESTS: West Alton, 33.1 feet (June 30); Hardin, 35.8 feet (June 28); Hamburg, 36.7 feet (June 23)

* FLOOD LEVEL, MONDAY MORNINING: West Alton, 33.1 feet; Hardin, 35.5 feet; Hamburg, 34.9 feet

* TODAY'S RIVER STAGES FORECAST: West Alton, 32.8 feet; Hardin, 35.2 feet; Hamburg, 34.2 feet