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Levees, Work of Thousands Keep Kansas City Dry

July 28, 1993|LOUIS SAHAGUN and MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The 40-year-old levees met the challenge on Tuesday, holding back the raging Missouri and Kansas rivers and answering the prayers of thousands here who had labored through the night to keep the water out.

Although the Missouri crested at 48.8 feet in the city, the downtown areas remained dry behind the 52-foot-tall flood walls built after the devastating floods of 1951. The Kansas peaked at about 53.5 feet a few miles to the west, but the levees there are 57 feet tall.

And in all but a few areas, the levees--hastily topped with hundreds of thousands of sandbags--did their job.

"It's close, too close, but it looks like the dike is holding," Kansas City Fire Chief Charles Fischer said Tuesday afternoon.

The only flooding was in outlying communities to the west and north, where a leak under one levee and a minor breach in another prompted the precautionary evacuation of more than 8,000 people.

Those who elected to stay with their property tended to be newcomers, people who put their faith in the flood walls and the forecasts. Those who cleared out tended to be old-timers, people who remembered the disasters of the past.

"I saw the '51 flood," Michael Koska, owner of a fireworks store, said as his warehouse full of pyrotechnic gear was being loaded onto a convoy of trucks headed for higher ground. But Koska's store and warehouse apparently were spared, as were the businesses and homes of the others who had piled sandbags at their doors, boarded up their windows and hoped for the best during the terrifying hours before the crests had passed.

Engineers said there should be another set of crests a few days from now, when the runoff from thunderstorms that have pounded Nebraska, Kansas and western Iowa begins moving downstream toward the levees that barricade the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers in Kansas City. How high the water will rise then has yet to be predicted.

But before the Missouri crests again here, it will pose renewed threats to the city of St. Joseph, Mo., 50 miles upstream, where 85,000 residents were still without water service on Tuesday after the city's water treatment plant was flooded by the overflowing river.

As in Kansas City, the river level began dropping in St. Joseph on Tuesday afternoon, but many of the 6,000 residents of St. Joseph's south side, evacuated earlier as a precaution, had yet to return to their homes.

In the old red brick factories and warehouses of Kansas City's industrial district, business owners held their collective breath on Tuesday morning as the flood surges from the Missouri and Kansas rivers collided.

The only thing standing between their firms and the rising rivers was a curtain of foot-thick concrete walls built after floodwaters roared through the district like a tidal wave in 1951.

Ignoring pleas from authorities to stay home and keep roads clear, thousands of sightseers gathered on the bluffs of nearby Quality Hill Tuesday morning for a first-hand look at the boiling confluence of the two mighty rivers.

"Geez, it's like we're on stage," said Greg Weld, president of a 26-year-old firm that manufactures racing wheels as he looked up the hill. He was one of the few businessmen who had faith in the walls and operated business-as-usual on Tuesday.

"I'm not a foolhardy optimist, but I prefer to trust the experts, and the information they are giving us," Weld said as the water continued to rise. "I'm assuming engineers are correct in saying the flood walls will work."

A block away, sitting on the loading dock of the chemical supply house that has been in his family since 1939, Roger Shores was far from persuaded.

Shores had already moved his most valuable inventory to higher ground and given his employees the day off. Now, he was watching for possible looters while keeping an eye on the containment walls just down the street.

"It's dumb to be so confident," he said, pointing up at the high-water mark etched 17 feet above ground on his building during the flood of '51. "There's so much misinformation and rumors floating around, the only way to know for certain if we're going to be flooded again is to be here."

The waiting ended Tuesday afternoon when the chocolate-colored waters began to recede.

"We're very grateful," said Forest Swafford, a spokesman for the Kansas City, Kan., Board of Public Works. "Because of the walls, it's not as bad as it could have been."

Standing on a catwalk straddling a section of flood wall in the industrial district, Larry Frevert, chairman of the Kansas City Missouri Levee Committee, smiled and said: "I think somebody had tremendous foresight to build this wall. . . .

"It was designed to withstand a 500-year flood, and I'm sure they paid a financial sacrifice to build it," he said. "Well, it sure paid off for us today."

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