FOLEY, MO. — As the flood-swollen Mississippi River began to peak Saturday, officials said they believed they had survived the worst of the flooding that has ravaged the Midwest for the last two weeks.
"We're cautiously optimistic," said Patty Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Emergency Management. "We hope that the worst has passed and we're out of the woods."
The flooding began two weeks ago in Iowa and spilled down the Mississippi last week, swamping small communities and farmland and stranding scores of barges on the nation's main commercial waterway. The flood threat is expected to lessen as the river moves south of St. Louis, where it widens and spills into several tributaries.
National Guard troops and volunteers were still piling sandbags to shore up levees between the Iowa border and St. Louis. Floodwater spilled over hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and washed out several key roads. Authorities cautioned that the river was still dangerous.
"It's not like, 'OK, we've got a river crest and it's going to drop right away,' " said Susi Steinner, a spokeswoman for Missouri Emergency Management. Some small towns are virtually abandoned, she pointed out, and others are under evacuation orders that will not be lifted for a week.
Flood levels were cresting lower, though, than during the record floods of 1993 -- a fact that lifted spirits along the Mississippi. It crested below the 1993 level in Canton, near the Iowa border, and was expected to crest lower than that height this morning in Hannibal, Mark Twain's hometown, which has sustained no damage.
The river has already crested at St. Louis.
In Lincoln County, where five levees were breached last week and floodwaters drenched 350 homes, workers continued to pile sandbags on secondary levees to protect towns like Foley. This agricultural hamlet of 200 people has already lost half its houses.
"We're still not out of it yet," said Andy Binder, a spokesman for the Lincoln County emergency management department. "But we feel optimistic this is going to hold."
On Saturday afternoon, dozens of volunteers, National Guard troops and convict laborers heaped sandbags on secondary levees that ran along a corn and bean field just outside the center of Foley.
"I think we're going to win this battle," said National Guard Sgt. David McClure. "It's a work in progress."
It's a familiar battle for denizens of the Mississippi River bottom, who still recall the 1993 flood that devastated much of this town. Paul Dixon, a 40-year-old construction worker from the nearby town of Winfield who was cheerily hoisting sandbags onto the Foley levee, recalled how that deluge washed away his parents' house.
"It happens every 10 or 15 years," he said, "and that's enough."