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Rivers Ring St. Louis Area With Disasters

August 02, 1993|JUDY PASTERNAK | This story was reported by Times staff writers Marc Lacey, Judy Pasternak and Richard A. Serrano and researcher Edith Stanley. It was written by Pasternak

ST. LOUIS — By sneak attack and brute frontal assault, the surging Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois rivers on Sunday contaminated two more water treatment plants, swamped historic brick storefronts, backed sewage into homes and sent thousands fleeing.

Late Sunday, the Mississippi tore three boats from their moorings near the Gateway Arch. One, a riverboat, drifted to a downtown bridge and lodged there. Several tugboats and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter were later able to round up the boats.

All three rivers are due to crest in this area today, and it is anybody's guess how high they will rise. With the Missouri and the Illinois bursting into the Mississippi just to the north, authorities are now saying they would not be surprised by a river stage here of 50 feet or more.

Most of the city stands high on a bluff, and a flood wall guarding a vast, low-lying industrial zone is designed to stave off a water level of 52 feet.

But confidence, once high, was being hedged. "We are hoping there will be no problems" with the wall, said Jim Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Even if the crest is below 52 feet, he said, the water is exerting enormous pressure on the St. Louis defenses. Minor seeps and leakage were apparent Sunday.

"It is almost impossible to predict what is going to happen," said St. Louis Fire Chief Neil Svetanics. But "we're not giving up. This city is going to continue fighting the rivers."

The great Midwest floods of 1993 have so far killed 45 people, submerged 16,000 square miles of land and destroyed an estimated $10 billion in property and crops.

On Sunday, with part of the western suburb of Chesterfield already underwater, the floods wrested more control in an arc around St. Louis and continued to spring surprises until 11 p.m., when the Spirit of the River riverboat, which houses a fast-food restaurant, broke free. Witnesses said they saw sparks shooting from the craft before it drifted away. The boat's deck was filled with crushed railings, smokestacks and other debris.

The Inaugural--a World War II minesweeper that is now a tourist attraction--and a barge used as a landing pad by tourist helicopters also broke loose and headed down the swollen river. All navigation has been banned for fear that wakes could weaken already-fragile levees.

Officials immediately began voicing concern about the numerous other boats moored along the Mississippi around downtown St. Louis. They include two riverboats: the Admiral on the St. Louis side and the Casino Queen across the river at East St. Louis.

"We are concerned about anything getting loose because if it bumps into the flood wall or floodgates, it could cause catastrophic damage," said Lt. Robert Sidall of the Coast Guard.

To the northwest, at St. Charles, Mo., the Missouri River pushed a row of sandbags aside to pour into a 30-square-block area, including restored buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, a trailer park and housing subdivisions.

To the northeast, at Alton, Ill., the Mississippi seeped under a two-week-old levee and resurfaced, behind the barrier, in the basements of renovated brick restaurants and shops. Fire department pumper trucks sent jets of water soaring back out over the sandbags, to no avail. The city's water treatment plant, serving 73,000 customers, also succumbed.

In south St. Louis, along the River des Peres' junction with the Mississippi, police and firefighters knocked on doors, urging 1,500 residents to leave an area now known locally as "Gilligan's Island" for its increasing isolation amid the waters.

Nearby, all 51 of the propane tanks stored at a Phillips Pipeline Co. facility were loosened and dangerously close to floating away or into each other. Officials said a fire was ignited Sunday evening, apparently by an electrical switch left on at a nearby pumping house. It was quickly extinguished.

About 90 minutes later, a second fire was reported inside the pumping station, but this too was doused. Efforts by divers to drain the tanks were suspended until authorities could survey the area for other fire hazards.

Further to the north, on the Illinois River, the Town Hall at tiny Hardin, Ill., was half-submerged, and the community's water system was out.

And further south, the Mississippi picked up two farmhouses and shattered them as it broke through a levee west of Columbia, Ill. What started as a 10-foot break quickly widened until a 100-foot-wide waterfall rushed down and spread across 15,000 acres. The river's force bulldozed trees and crumpled silos.

Sunday's first levee casualty was at St. Charles, a city of 55,000 people.

More than 1,000 volunteers filled, tied and hauled sandbags into place to try to thwart the river from advancing further.

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