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Highway 79, Revisited

johnboatonroad300.jpg While Joe Landrigan can get around with an ATV, some people need boats to check on their homes. 300 pixels. 2008
Kristin DiFate | St. Louis Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 23, 2008 - ANNADA -- Joe Landrigan's utility terrain vehicle cut a frothy wake through caramel waters, the lone sound -- and sign -- of life in this speck of a town along Highway 79 in Lincoln County.

There were no sandbags, no makeshift berms guarding the modest homes of this 50-member community two miles from the Mississippi River. There were also no people.

Most residents left days before, all but certain creeping floodwaters would again envelop the town. Confirmation inched closer Saturday afternoon.

In fact, only about six inches separated the first floor of Landrigan's Maple Street home from the murky water that had already inundated many of his neighbors.

"We don't even worry about it out here anymore, for a town of 43 people," said Landrigan, 27, explaining the deserted streets devoid of sandbags. "It's kind of a lost cause."

His valuables long since moved to higher ground, Landrigan had returned to open windows at the house, hoping to cut down on mold growth if water crossed the threshold.

He killed the engine of his four-wheeler and spoke with grim acceptance.

"That's the worst part," he said, "the waiting."

It was also all that remained for many flood-weary homeowners along Highway 79 this weekend. Snaking its way north alongside the Mississippi, the two-lane state route serves as connective tissue for these small agrarian communities in the river's shadow.

Up and down the waterlogged highway, residents from Winfield north to Clarksville shared a similar plight as the river's crest closed in: Most of the hard work was over.

All they could do now was watch and wait to see if the worst was still to come.

Echoes of 1993

The highway cut a narrow, dry path between waterlogged Annada to the west and an expanse of flooded farmland to the east, toward the river.

Floodwaters lapped at the concrete base of grain silos near the roadway's edge. Inaccessible by foot or car, the empty town sat silent.

Fifteen years ago, the Flood of 1993 devastated Annada, filling the Landrigan home with 17 inches of water. They gutted the house after the water receded, repairing or reinstalling everything but the ceiling.

"It was considerably worse," Landrigan said of the 1993 flood, before turning his attention to the latest potential disaster. "But we're still watching the water creep in."

Landrigan bought the Maple Street property earlier this year from his parents. He promptly installed new siding, windows and a host of other additions.

He didn't have a chance to get the upgrades factored into his flood insurance before the river rose.

Slowing down in Clarksville

Camouflaged trucks rumbled through the heart of Clarksville, kicking up grit and grime from dust-caked streets.

National Guardsmen bagged 43 tons of sand  in Clarksville in 2008. 300 pixels wide
Credit Kristin DiFate | St. Louis Beacon archives
National Guardsmen bagged 43 tons of sand and remain to provide security, watch for leaks and pump out basements.

The battle for this iconic Mississippi River town started a week ago, when Missouri National Guardsmen bagged 43 tons of sand in a six-hour shift. Almost a week later, dozens of soldiers dotted Second Street, just a few blocks from an inundated Highway 79.

Most of the sandbagging efforts had subsided by late Saturday afternoon. A handful of soldiers worked to fortify sandbags and makeshift metal walls near City Hall, hours after officials had sent home civilian volunteers. As many as 350 volunteers a day poured into Clarksville during the week, according to relief officials.

Sgt. David Taylor kept watch from the shaded porch of a local storefront. Outside the shop operated by local artist Christopher Bove, a sign welcomed parched visitors: "Free refreshments for floodworkers, volunteers."

About 150 guardsmen remained in Clarksville on Saturday to help pump out basements and yards, look for leaks in levee walls and to provide security for business owners leery of potential looting.

Past the halfway point of another 18-hour day, Taylor, 37, remained hopeful his return home was just a few days away. But with the river still rising, Taylor could also speak to the pain of inevitable loss -- the flood of 1993 engulfed his entire West Alton home.

"Two shingles up on the roof," the 20-year National Guard veteran recalled.

Life in a floodplain

A good chunk of Donna McDonald's life sits crammed in a 10-foot by 14-foot shed on a hilltop in Foley, another familiar flooding casualty split by Highway 79.

She and partner Gary Madas shoved keepsakes and valuables into the tool shed as the nearby Mississippi spilled over its banks, menacing the town of about 300. With help, they plopped the shed on a trailer and hauled it to higher ground.

"What we couldn't fit is still upstairs," said McDonald, 49, a lifelong Foley resident whose home took on four feet of water during the 1993 flooding.

The pair was forced to relocate Thursday to a shelter at Winfield High School, about three miles south. By Saturday afternoon, the water was about eight to 10 inches from the house, said Madas, 44, who's lived in Foley the last nine years.

"It's futile to sandbag," he said from the air-conditioned comfort of the shelter. "It's there. You can't stop it now."

In all, eight people spent Friday night at the shelter, where more than 40 cases of bottled water lined the back wall. American Red Cross workers expected another six residents to return Saturday evening.

Entire families made the trek from across the region and beyond to volunteer. Local businesses donated scores of food items. More than 900 people signed up to fill sandbags in a single day last week, said Red Cross worker Jim Ulbrich, who, with his wife, Sheila, staffs the shelter in 12-hour shifts.

The St. Louis couple began to take on disaster relief work after Hurricane Katrina.

"You're just glad that you can help them," Sheila said. "Somebody will help us if we're in that situation."

A few tables away, left with little but her thoughts, Donna McDonald mulled over the help she would need in the coming days. Depending on the crest, the floor furnace, well pump and carpet would all have to be replaced. For the Foley couple without flood insurance, that likely represented a best-case scenario.

"It's just a waiting game," McDonald said. "If you live in a flood plain, you've got to expect it."

Chris Birk is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of journalism at Webster University. 

Help from inmates

In rural Missouri, sandbaggers are battling the flood field by field, heaping layers of sandbags atop low-lying portions of the levee that separates them from the widening Mississippi River.
At one levee north of Foley, Mo., the locals lost the battle Sunday morning. It was a hard-fought battle -- one in which county jail inmates and volunteers had labored next to members of the National Guard in an attempt to save the small town many of them call home.
In the days before the Foley levee broke, the traditional black and white striped prisoner's uniform became a common sight along Lincoln County's waterlogged eastern border, as the county jail sent inmates by the busload to help with sandbagging efforts.
Many of the prisoners working on the levee near Foley Saturday were "weekenders" -- inmates who serve their sentence for nonviolent crimes during the weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday evening, said Lincoln County Undersheriff John Cottle. Indeed, many of them were sporting sunburns from their work on the levee during the previous weekend.
But they weren't complaining. "They take good care of us," said one as he lay down a row of sandbags. "They give us food and water and Gatorade and sunscreen."
While there was no short supply of bratwursts and fruit juice from the Salvation Army, the volunteers quickly learned that they needed more sandbags than they had. Much of the quarter-mile stretch of levee they were working on was only spotted with sandbags, as volunteers rushed to reinforce the lowest portions first, planning to get to the higher spots if more sandbags arrived.
Despite the circumstances, a momentary air of optimism spread amongst the sandbaggers, as some of them started believing they might actually stave off the floodwaters. But that optimism was stifled the next morning when water started spilling, then pouring, over their sandbag defenses and toward the town they had worked so hard to protect.
-- Amanda King