Small towns suffer big losses as rivers rise

OAKVILLE, Iowa Volunteers up and down the river in Illinois and Missouri joined sandbagging operations in the frantic effort to contain the Mississippi as forecasters predicted near-record crests from Quincy, Ill., to Winfield, Mo.

"There's one thing about Midwesterners," said Don Giltner, mayor of Louisiana, Mo., a picturesque river town north of St. Louis where 40 square blocks were under water Wednesday, three days before the Mississippi's expected crest. "We're resilient as hell. We're all worn out. We've put in a lot of long days."

President Bush planned to travel Thursday to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, where the water is receding but families and businesses are knee-deep in the disheartening aftermath. The visits will be his first in the Midwest since flooding began; he was in Europe at the time but expressed deep concern.

Storms and flooding across six states this month have killed 24 people, injured 148 and caused more than $1.5 billion in estimated damage in Iowa alone -- a figure that's likely to increase as river levels climb in Missouri and Illinois.

Even before the Iowa River used the town of Oakville as a shortcut to the Mississippi, there wasn't much here: a post office, a convenience store, a tavern and a little restaurant.

The largest employer was a pork-and-grain producer called TriOak Foods. The company's towering grain elevator was the tallest structure for miles around.

Then the floodwaters that soaked Des Moines and Iowa City began inundating the region's small communities -- most with skylines that consist only of a water tower and maybe a couple of church steeples.

As the rivers rise, these modest towns survive because neighbors look after each other, and the people reinforcing the levees are business owners, farmers and fellow church members who have lived there for years.

"My house is past help. So we're trying to save everybody else's," said Bethany Frank as she helped fill sandbags in a church parking lot in Oakville. Her home on the outskirts of town was flooded up to the roof.

Federal officials predicted as many as 30 more levees could overflow this week, leaving industrial and agricultural areas vulnerable but sparing major residential centers. So far this week, 20 levees have overflowed.

At least 10 have been topped in Illinois and Missouri in recent days, including two south of tiny Gulfport, Ill., that threatened to swamp 30,000 acres of farmland near the evacuated town of Meyer, Ill.

A 280-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Fulton, Ill., and Winfield, Mo., is expected to remain closed for at least 10 more days because of flooding. As many as 10 tows -- each with as many as 15 barges -- were believed stuck on the upper Mississippi River.

Residents in and around Winfield were urged to evacuate their homes after another levee breach Wednesday night.

"We are urging, my God, people to get out of homes and businesses east of Highway 79," said Cpl. Andy Binder with the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department. "Get out and get to higher ground."

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt sent 600 members of the National Guard to the northeastern part of the state, plus 100 more to the St. Louis area to help towns farther downstream. In Illinois, 1,100 Illinois National Guard troops have been sent to help flooded communities.

"My property is right on this street. I've got a lot to lose," said Tony Dye, whose home in Canton, Mo., stands beneath the levee and well below the river's expected crest Thursday at nearly 14 feet above flood stage.

The levee protecting Canton appeared to be holding Thursday morning after floodwaters dropped dramatically overnight. Forecasters had predicted a flood stage of 27.7 feet -- just below the record height -- but before sunrise water levels had dropped well below the top of sandbag walls built by volunteers atop the levee.

The river at Hannibal, Mo., the hometown of Mark Twain, is expected to crest Friday at or near the 31.8-foot high-water mark of 1993 -- the second so-called 500-year flood in 15 years. Parts of town are under several feet of water, though government buyouts after the 1993 flood left only a few scattered homes and businesses in the flood plain. Downtown, though, is protected by a levee built to withstand a crest of 34 feet.

Levee breaches to the north eased pressure on some levees downstream. The river level dropped more than 3 feet in Canton and more than 2 feet in Quincy, Ill., and Hannibal, Mo., on Thursday after a levee breach at Meyer, Ill.

However, the National Weather Service predicts all three towns will still see crests on Friday that are just short of record levels reached in 1993.

In Iowa, parts of downtown Burlington remained flooded Wednesday, but sandbagging efforts had stopped and officials said they were confident levees would hold. The Great River Bridge at Burlington was still closed because of high water.

In Cedar Rapids, officials allowed more people into damaged homes and businesses. Residents were being urged to conserve water because the water system had only half its normal supply.

Outside the population hubs, some fear entire communities may be lost forever, possibly wiping off the map names such as Columbus Junction, Fredonia, Palo and New Hartford.

About 70 percent of Iowa towns have populations of less than 1,000. A little more than half of those places have fewer than 500 inhabitants.

Oakville sits at the bottom of a hairpin turn the Iowa River makes on its course to the Mississippi. When it became clear the levee would fail, trucking company owners Trina and Ward Gabeline scrambled to help friends save whatever they could.

They gathered about three dozen truck trailers and dropped them off at houses so families could load them with furniture and heirlooms. Then the company retrieved them and carried the cargo to higher ground.

"We didn't do it expecting to get paid," Trina Gabeline said, her eyes bloodshot from crying. "We did it to help the people. Because these things that are in these trailers, that's the only thing these people have left right now."

Meanwhile, Gabeline's three brothers helped shore up levees. One was filling trucks with sand, another hauled the sand to bagging stations and a third used an all-terrain vehicle to take finished sandbags to the flood walls.

The day of the flood, local excavating company owner Jon Fye braved the strong currents to rescue a grain elevator worker who became trapped at the TriOak plant. When river levels had stabilized, he went back with Gabeline to inspect the damage.

Fye steered the small boat gingerly around submerged cars and past a picturesque Victorian house where an American flag hung limply from the porch into muddy waters that reeked of diesel fuel and hog waste.

Gabeline stared at house after house flooded to the eaves and ticked off the names of the families who had lived there: "Hayes, Yotters, Kronfeldts, Beedings, Reids, Browns. There's numerous Kuntzes and Lanzes along here."

Fye said people in many small towns have already learned to live without comforts city folks take for granted.

"The small town suffers with no grocery stores anymore, hardly any gas stations," said Fye, who lives in the even smaller nearby town of Sperry.

Fye said wealthier farmers should bounce back from the disaster fairly quickly. But for many friends and neighbors already living on the edge, the floods could spell doom.

"For some it's a bad year, a terrible year," he said as he cleared corn stalks from the propeller of his boat. "But for some, it's the end."

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