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TRAVEL INSIDER : Mississippi River Deluge Has Visitors on the Run : Tourism: Areas that haven't been inundated by high water are flooded with public misconceptions.

August 08, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

For thousands of farmers and their neighbors in the Mississippi River Valley, this summer's floods have been a reminder of how much their lives depend upon the good graces of nature. That message has come through for many of us not on the scene, and so has another message: Our Midwestern geography isn't so good.

Thus, for the past few weeks, Californians and others with travel plans in the Midwest have been scrambling for reassurances about destinations. Sometimes we ask sensible questions. (Isn't Memphis on the Mississippi? Yes. Is it flooded? No, it's well south of the trouble.) Sometimes we don't ask sensible questions. (Is St. Louis' Gateway Arch under water? No . . . it's 630 feet high.) In Illinois, operators at a special toll-free number are fielding 600 calls a day.

Unless your questions concern the Gateway Arch, they are probably worth asking. Along with the many farms, farmhouses and other low-lying rural properties under water, many Midwestern tourist attractions and transportation routes have been affected. In some cities, hotels are full of displaced families. Amtrak trains have suffered delays and disruptions in Missouri and southern Iowa. (Although most of the trouble is past, officials urge passengers with upcoming trips to double-check their itineraries by calling (800) USA-RAIL.)

The Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen riverboats were nearing the end of their annual Fourth of July race when the Mississippi's rising waters forced a detour. Instead of finishing in St. Louis, the boats' passengers disembarked 50 miles south at Ste. Genevieve, Mo., on July 5; a bus delivered them to the St. Louis airport for their flights home. From Ste. Genevieve, the Delta Queen was able to resume its scheduled itinerary on the Ohio River, but the Mississippi Queen had to re-route a St. Paul, Minn., cruise up the Tennessee River to Chattanooga, Tenn., and divert a St. Genevieve cruise to Louisville, Ky. Since then, both boats have been able to keep on schedule, safely away from the upper Mississippi.

In some places, perceptions have been at least as much of a problem as high waters. The Amanas, a string of rural German colonies in Iowa, lie 70 miles west of the Mississippi and have suffered minimal damage in the rains. But in the crisis atmosphere, so many tourists have stayed away that merchants estimate they've lost more than $3 million.

And though the lower Mississippi River in Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana has been well-behaved all summer, and rainfall there has been average or below average, tourist offices in each of those states have taken scores of nervous calls.

*

Here's a quick north-to-south rundown of popular tourist destinations in states along the Mississippi River. Anyone considering a trip to states that have endured flooding, however, should call local authorities to get the most up-to-date information.

In Minnesota: Virtually no problems. The Mississippi and Minnesota rivers crested in late June, causing a brief interruption of riverboat day trips out of St. Paul. State tourism spokeswoman Rae Van Wyhe reported that boat business is back to usual now, as is the mammoth Mall of America in Bloomington, about five miles from the Minnesota River. For more information: The Minnesota Office of Tourism, 100 Metro Square, 121 Seventh Place E., St. Paul, Minn. 55101; tel. (800) 657-3700 or (612) 296-5029. For road conditions: state Department of Transportation, tel. (800) 542-0220.

In Iowa: In southeastern cities along the Mississippi, including Burlington, Fort Madison, Keokuk and Muscatine, various attractions and events have been closed. Detours are in place there and elsewhere. The Amana colonies are open, as are almost all river cruises and casino operations. Des Moines hotels and restaurants have reopened after trouble, and tap water is again potable. The Iowa State Fair in Des Moines will go on as scheduled Aug. 19-29.

For flooding updates, call Iowa Travelers Hotline, (800) 528-5265. For road conditions, call (515) 288- 1047. To request free literature, call (800) 345-4692 or contact the Iowa Division of Tourism, 200 E. Grand Ave., Des Moines, Iowa 50309; tel. (515) 242-4705.

In Nebraska: Several roads and state parks along the Missouri River were closed in July but reopened recently. Oregon Trail 150th anniversary celebrations continue at Chimney Rock Historic Site, Fort Kearney and Scotts Bluff National Monument. For more information, contact the Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism, 700 S. 16th St., P.O. Box 94666, Lincoln, Neb. 68509; tel. (800) 228-4307 or (402) 471-3796.

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