HULL, Ill. — Raging floodwater tore through the bottom of the longest levee along the northern Mississippi River on Sunday, trapping five people, two of them in treetops filled with snakes. The river closed six miles of the Central Illinois Expressway and swamped 45,000 acres of prime farmland.
"We have a breach! We have a breach!" a levee inspector shouted into his two-way radio as the Sny levee, the second-largest river berm in the nation, burst at 11:23 a.m., local time. Nine levee workers fled in trucks and on foot, but three were trapped on bulldozers and two climbed into trees, along with dozens of snakes.
They thought the snakes were nonpoisonous, said Harold Colston, in charge of levee communications. But he said the workers did not stop to check. They tried to hurl the snakes out of the treetops, Colston said, but the snakes slithered back up and twisted around their legs. Finally, all five workers were rescued by helicopter. None were injured.
It was a frightening end to a dramatic battle. Volunteers, National Guardsmen and inmates had spent weeks reinforcing the levee in one of the most critical defenses of agricultural territory in the Midwest. The Sny levee is 52 miles long. Only the 1,700-mile Main Stem levee, along both sides of the calmer southern part of the river, protects more U.S. farmland.
To the west, the Missouri River swamped the water plant in St. Joseph, Mo., knocking out service to nearly 80,000 residents. Officials said it would take at least four days to repair it. People crowded into grocery stores to buy bottled water and paper plates. City officials and the National Guard brought in drinking water and set up distribution centers.
For the first time in nearly a week, parts of the Midwest got a forecast for drier weather. The National Weather Service said no new rain is expected in northern Missouri, Iowa, Kansas or Nebraska until late today or early Tuesday. Then, the forecasters said, it would rain again.
The floods' death toll stood at 41. Crop and property damage topped $10 billion.
The Sny levee protected two large agricultural areas of Illinois. It was the northern portion of the levee that burst. Still safe, behind the southern portion, were 65,000 acres of farmland. Running east and west between the two areas is a barrier called Kaiser Creek. Most of its floodgates seemed to be holding.
At one point, however, levee workers worried about a leak. Tom Hill, manning a levee inspection shack at Pleasant Hill, said floodwater had begun running through the Kaiser Creek barrier near New Canton. "We have to whip that," he declared, "or we're in trouble through the whole area.
"It tears your little heart out," Hill said. "We can't imagine what's going to happen next."
In Hull and other small towns behind the Sny levee, fire sirens began to wail moments after Dean Paben, a levee inspector, repeated his radio warning: "We have a break!"
Sand on the back of the levee had slipped down, said Jeannie Cox, an official at the Sny Island Levee and Drainage District. Levee workers thought it had hardened the berm, she said. "This was a solid spot in the levee."
But then, she said, floodwater from the Mississippi "just blew out from the bottom."
The blowout grew into a breach 100 feet wide, then doubled in size. Water roared through the levee and trapped the five workers. The three on the bulldozers were relatively safe, Colston said, but the two who climbed into the trees ran into a terrifying problem.
As they shinnied up, he said, they encountered the snakes in the branches. So far as the workers could tell, Colston said, the snakes were nonpoisonous. "But they weren't about to take a good hard look to see what kind of snakes they were. They wanted to get the hell out of there."
The Sny levee area, he said, is known to be a habitat for deadly water moccasins.
The Illinois National Guard had assigned four UH-1 Huey helicopters from Midway Airport in Chicago to the airport in Quincy, Ill., about 40 miles north of Hull. As the levee workers tried to throw the snakes out of the trees, Colston guided helicopters from the squadron to the breach in the levee.
The choppers hovered over the trees and bulldozers and plucked all of the levee workers to safety.
Colston said the rescue took little more than 20 minutes. "But it seemed like two hours. It was wild."
Water rose behind the broken levee like spreading pain. It took the Mississippi only four hours to cover nearly 45,000 acres. Kevin Keithly watched it consume his 160 acres of soybeans and corn. "That water," he said, "was moving at a fast walk."
People fled the towns of Hull, East Hannibal, Sehorn and Fall Creek. Many already had left. In all, authorities said, about 2,000 evacuated their homes. Neighbors said goodby, loaded cars, trailers and pickups with their household goods and drove away.
They carried furniture, propane tanks, pianos, file cabinets, desks.