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Two Major Rivers Surge Together; Key Bridge Cut Off : Disaster: The Mississippi and the Missouri destroy flood barriers and force hundreds to flee. Levee accident sets off a spectacular gasoline explosion, fire.

July 17, 1993|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY and LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS; Kennedy reported from St. Louis; Sahagun from Des Moines. Times staff writers Robert L. Jackson in Washington; Judy Pasternak in Niota, Ill.; Stephen Braun and Tracy Shryer in Chicago, and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles contributed to this story

ST. LOUIS — Two of the mightiest rivers in America, the Missouri and the Mississippi, washed together Friday about 20 miles above their normal confluence, punching through levees and rolling floodwaters across a peninsula trapped between them like a frightened animal. Hundreds of people fled after initially defying orders to evacuate.

Officials sent military trucks to rescue the stragglers. The two rivers drove more than 7,000 people from their homes, mostly on farms in St. Charles County, Mo., north and west of the St. Louis suburbs. Neither river touched St. Louis itself, but 1,000 volunteers sandbagged the River Des Pres, south of the city, as it crept toward the top of a 45-foot levee.

Farther north, the Mississippi smashed a 100-yard hole through a levee at West Quincy, Mo., closing the only bridge for 250 miles. Water churning in a white froth sucked two barges loaded with rocks and grain through the levee. It threw one into a service station on shore. The barge and the floodwater knocked over gasoline tanks, and they exploded into flame.

To the northwest, seven inches of rainfall whipped the Red River into a frenzy. The river, which divides Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., rose four feet in six hours. It swept through both Fargo and Moorhead and swamped their sewer systems. Raw sewage flushed backward. It rose from pipes and flooded into a hospital and hundreds of homes.

Estimates of total flood damage in the Midwest ranged from $8 billion to $9 billion. The death toll stood at 26, and the number of homeless approached 40,000. Nor was the worst over. The rain, which fell intermittently throughout the day in parts of North Dakota, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, was forecast to continue with only sporadic relief.

Faced with a mounting disaster, President Clinton scheduled his third visit to the Midwest in two weeks. He planned a "flood summit" today in St. Louis with officials from nine states. The President has asked Congress for $2.5 billion in aid for flood victims throughout the area and said he probably will request more.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said in Washington that flooding has damaged "an incredible agriculture belt" which provides two-thirds of America's corn, half of its soybeans and a fifth of its wheat. Nonetheless, he said, "we do not consider these losses of such magnitude that they will jeopardize the food supply or significantly affect food prices."

Forecasters, however, made it clear that the magnitude of losses would increase.

"Little relief from the flooding can be expected over the next week," said Marty McKewon, senior meteorologist for WeatherData Inc., a private weather forecasting service. He pinpointed the areas most likely to get heavy rain today as Minnesota, eastern Nebraska and Iowa.

"It does not appear heavy rain will fall in the Dakotas," he said. "Sunday looks like another day for heavy rain, however, in eastern Nebraska, Iowa and northern Missouri. Major flooding should continue this weekend in Iowa due to the likelihood of heavy rain. And more heavy rain is forecast Monday and Tuesday from Kansas through Missouri."

Missouri

The mighty Mississippi and Missouri rivers swept together at their new confluence early Friday after the Mississippi had broken through several minor levees and spread nine miles across a peninsula hooked like a crooked finger around the top of St. Louis and its northern suburbs.

Soon Mississippi River water was lapping at the back of a major levee holding the Missouri.

Then the Missouri swept over the top of its dike. Within hours, it had punched holes at several places along the barrier and was flowing through with impunity.

About 7,000 people on the peninsula followed orders to evacuate, but hundreds stayed behind, trying to brave it out.

As the water level increased, many of them fled. Army trucks brought out the last few who tried to remain.

For days, there had been speculation that one of the rivers might cut a new channel to the other. But Gary Dyhouse, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydrologist, said it had not happened. "That's a total exaggeration," he said. "It's basically impossible for the river to cut a channel in one flood.

"When the flooding is over the rivers will go back to their old channels."

The peninsula includes the community of St. Charles, Mo. At least four major breaks in the Missouri levee occurred nearby, but most of St. Charles, population 55,000, was on high ground.

Volunteers--children and middle-aged businessmen alike--passed sandbags up to the levee.

One of them was Tim McClokkey, who had been driving from Hudson, Wis., to Tennessee when he heard that help was needed.

"I couldn't just keep going," he said. "You've got to help at times like this. It's good karma."

Down the line, the volunteers made light of a serious situation.

"I'll have to go to New Delhi next year for vacation to top this," said Al Fulvio, a sales representative.

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