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They watch and wait and rest

Troops think their Missouri levee of sandbags, stuffed and stacked at breakneck speed, will hold. They hope.

June 23, 2008|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

CLARKSVILLE, MO. — Twelve hours earlier, Spc. Mike Bruno was frantically hoisting sandbags onto a makeshift levee under the scalding sun, trying to protect this town of old brick storefronts and Victorian houses from the raging Mississippi.

Now the National Guardsman leaned back in a plastic chair, propped up his boots on a wooden sawhorse and enjoyed the cool evening breeze. His new task: Every 30 minutes he needs to stand, walk a dozen paces and check the fuel levels in the nearby motorized pump.

"This isn't bad at all," said Bruno, 23. "It could be worse."

The battle against the swollen Mississippi River has shifted. For the last week it was fought with sandbags and earthen berms. Now the weapon is patience.

The river continued to crest Sunday, peaking at levels below its 1993 record. In the hamlet of Foley, it spilled over main levees and sloshed onto State Highway 79. The river is expected to crest today in Clarksville and Wednesday downriver in Winfield.

Fueled by torrential rains that swamped Cedar Rapids and other cities in Iowa two weeks ago, the Mississippi has punched through several levees and flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland.

Critics have asked why the federal government never created a uniform standard to improve the river's levees, a patchwork built by various local, county and state officials. After the 1993 floods, a panel of experts recommended putting the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of all levees, but few of the commission's sweeping recommendations were enacted.

Pierce O'Donnell, the lead attorney in a class-action lawsuit over the failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina, said Sunday that this month's floods were a reminder of lingering neglect.

"How many more floods do we have to have?" he said. "How many more millions of miles of land have to be destroyed, how many more hundreds of thousands of people have to be displaced or die, before there's some substantial changes made by the federal government?"

In Missouri and Illinois, officials said they were confident that the levees that were still standing would hold. Now the name of the game is vigilance.

"Up until yesterday, the primary mission was filling sandbags," said Capt. Tammy Spicer, a spokeswoman for the Missouri National Guard. "Now it's watching levees."

It will be days, if not weeks, until the water recedes and eases up the pressure on the levees. Up and down the river, National Guard troops are watching the impromptu sandbag walls they've constructed, checking for signs of leaks, pumps that break down or any other failure that would let the Mississippi regain the edge.

It's boring work, but also a welcome relief after the frenzy of the last week. Clarksville, a tourist town of 500, sits on the bank of the Mississippi, unprotected by a wall or levee. The National Guard roared into town June 16 as the waters were already lapping at downtown streets. Residents and volunteers had started sandbagging homes and erecting barricades.

Soldiers in the 1035 Maintenance Company immediately began filling sandbags. During their first shift, they stuffed 50 tons of sand and stacked the bags around downtown. The six-hour shifts were followed by six hours of rest during which troops were bused to a rural school 10 miles away that served as their barracks.

"You get an hour and a half sleep, the days just run together," Sgt. Rick Freeman said.

On Saturday, that changed. The troops switched to a shift of six hours on, 18 off.

"It's a good break for our guys," Maj. Aaron Stover said. "They can go out and do some laundry."

Stover stood inside the guard command post at Clarksville's Tourist Information Center, a two-level Victorian house with immense picture windows perched on a rise above the river. He and other officers stood watching the Mississippi, flanked by stuffed ducks and brochures for the St. Louis Zoo and Meramec Caverns.

"Right now we're in standby mode, just ready to do something if something happens," Stover said.

Down at the water, Bruno and Spc. Emmett Wilson, 36, sat in plastic chairs in front of a two-story apartment building. A canister of bug spray and an empty Jujyfruits box lay on the ground. In front of the soldiers was a 10-foot-high wall of sandbags.

Beyond the wall, the tops of a gazebo, swing set and trees peeked out from the black surface of the river -- the only trace of the town's waterfront park. An ornamental gate stood half-submerged, bearing Clarksville's name and the words "Touch the Mississippi."

The only sound was the hum of the generator-powered pump sucking water from the sewage system.

"Sitting out here six hours doing nothing but listening to a pump and watching the river go down, it gets a little boring after a while," Bruno said.

He whiled away the hours by sending text messages to friends and chatting with officers who strolled down the street. He wasn't worried about making regular checks of the sandbags, which sat at eye level directly in front of him.

"If there's a problem," he said, "I'll know."

Sarah Grimmett was skeptical as she watched him watching the sandbags.

Grimmett, 85, is a Clarksville native, and memories of how the 1993 flood soaked her ground-floor apartment drove her to sleep at a friend's place on the second floor last week. She's not coming down yet.

"Too much water -- that thing might break," Grimmett said, tugging her pink gown.

"I've had enough of this. I want it to go back and not come back for 40 years."


Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago contributed to this report.

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