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Storms drench Midwest and South

Levees and homes are threatened after more than a foot of rain falls in less than a week.

April 27, 2011|Times Staff and Wire Reports

POPLAR BLUFF, MO. — Floodwaters on Tuesday threatened earthen levees protecting thousands of homes in the Midwest and parts of the South, forcing panicked residents to evacuate and emergency crews to rescue some by boat.

Relentless thunderstorms have dropped more than a foot of rain in less than a week, engorging rivers and drenching Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Illinois. Another, larger system was brewing along the same path, bringing several more days of rain and the possibility of tornadoes.

At least 100 homes in the east Texas town of Edom were damaged by high winds or a tornado Tuesday night, and a woman was injured when her mobile home was destroyed, the Associated Press reported.

At least 11 people died in the violent weather Monday: 10 in Arkansas and one in Mississippi.

The greatest flooding threat loomed in the southeastern Missouri community of Poplar Bluff, a town of 17,000 residents about 130 miles south of St. Louis. Six inches of rain fell Monday, bringing the four-day total to 15 inches.

By Tuesday, the Black River had spilled over the town's levee in more than 30 places, and three holes had appeared, police Lt. David Sutton said.

Emergency crews evacuated more than 1,000 homes and tried to shore up weak spots in the levee. The first hole didn't appear until late morning.

"It was a miracle that we didn't have any problems" before then, Sutton said. "It gave us plenty of time to evacuate."

More than 300 people took shelter at the Black River Coliseum, a concert venue in town.

But the fear of a complete levee failure looms.

"Each heavy downpour, each hour that passes by with the water pushing on that levee, the likelihood of a failure is that much more possible," Poplar Bluff Deputy Police Chief Jeff Rolland said.

If the levee were to fail entirely, floodwaters could destroy or severely damage 500 homes and displace 7,000 people in the surrounding flood plain, authorities said.

In rural Butler County, more than 150 people who were stranded in their homes had to be rescued, many by boat, Sheriff Mark Dobbs told The Times.

"It's basically one gigantic lake out there," he said.

Sandbagging wasn't an option in many places because the river simply rose too quickly.

"By the time we realized what was happening, it was too dangerous to sandbag," Butler County Presiding Commissioner Ed Strenfel said.

Similar scenes played out across southeastern Missouri, where officials grappled with near-record river levels.

Seventy-five miles east of Poplar Bluff, at Birds Point, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers debated a desperate plan to use explosives to blow a two-mile-wide hole in the levee. That would flood 132,000 acres of farmland but relieve pressure from the rising Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon objected, and the state attorney general went to court to try to block the demolition, arguing that the floodwaters could damage 100 homes and leave a layer of silt that could take a generation to clear.

The corps postponed its decision until Wednesday.

Blowing up the Bird's Point levee hasn't been done since 1937, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.

Tony Hill, chief of the emergency management office for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Little Rock, Ark., said the Poplar Bluff levee received an "unacceptable" rating -- the lowest of three possible rankings. The levee was breached and overtopped by flooding in 2008, he said.

"It's very common throughout the United States for levees to be rated unacceptable," Hill said. "It's a systemic problem we have with the way levees are managed, or actually not managed, in the United States. What has happened is these levee authorities just do not have the funds to keep the maintenance up to speed."

As the last week's storms moved into the Great Lakes on Tuesday, a similar system formed over Texas and Arkansas. It's relatively rare for one powerful storm to follow another so quickly, said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the National Storm Prediction Center.

"This is just not what you'd want to see," he said. "That whole region is getting clobbered."

Contributing to the flooding are a large snowpack and higher than normal precipitation levels this year, Carbin said. "These storms are just adding insult to injury."

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