By Adam Thorp
CLARKSVILLE – Its cold, and damp, comfort, but the worst days yet of an already wet flood season failed to break all-time records in Pike County.
In Clarksville, where the river reached 37.1 feet Sunday, a last-minute surge of effort by volunteers beat a surge of water in the fight to protect its downtown. In Louisiana, city workers played “chase the barricades,” in the words of City Administrator Kelly Henderson, as the rising waters covered more and more of the city. In Louisiana, the river reached 27.7 feet.
In both cities, that’s the second-highest crest recorded, just below the crests registered in 1993—28.4 feet in Louisiana and 37.7 feet in Clarksville.
It’s the third top-10 crest this flood season.
It looked like it might be even worse Friday, when Clarksville’s defenders were planning to work non-stop through the night to get ready for a crest that would be a hairs-breadth from the all-time high.
A series of levee breaks along the river over the course of the weekend relieved the pressure, lowering and delaying the eventual crest, and allowed some of the volunteers to get a break Thursday night, according to Clarksville Flood Plain Administrator Sue Lindemann. They successfully built the floodwall surrounding two blocks of Clarksville’s historic downtown up to 38 feet.
The storm that hit Pike County Saturday did not help their efforts, strewing debris, dumping water on the wrong side of Clarksville’s floodwalls and knocking out power in Clarksville and parts of Louisiana. The challenges compounded: without power, pumps pushing water out from behind floodwalls stopped operating.
“The power outage was really the cherry on top,” Clarksville Mayor Jo Anne Smiley said.
A few of the Clarksville institutions in the southern part of town had been protected through the efforts of different combinations of volunteers, official efforts and business owners, forming an archipelago of buildings tightly surrounded by flood walls. Between suddenly silent pumps, seepage from below, and the rapidly rising waters, several buildings—including the Clarksville Antique Center, the CBC Bank building, and the Clarksville Post Office—took on at least some water.
City leadership had identified Clarksville’s Post Office as a priority, but the intimidating forecasts Thursday prompted a hard conversation among the leaders of the flood-fighting effort, Lindemann said Friday.
“We decided that we could try to save everything and not save anything, or we could prioritize. The post office would have taken more effort, more material, we would have been working in water, than both of these two sides of First Street. So we decided to do these first and then make the Post Office our third priority,” Lindemann said.
Kimberley Caldwell-Harvey, the spokesperson for the St. Louis region of the United States Postal Service, said the post office will resume operations when it is safe to do so.
“Our post offices will not be closing or [be] no longer open after water recedes,” Caldwell-Harvey said. “We will be returning to all of our offices that have temporarily closed.”
The city’s defenses were erected through the work of a growing group of flood fighters. Members of the Missouri National Guard, called into action last week by Gov. Mike Parson, arrived Wednesday. Female inmates from Vandalia and participants in the federal volunteer program, Americorps—both of which have become common sights during the course of the long flood fight—continued to help. Volunteers from far afield and from their only just-flooded homes in town lent their efforts. County employees and resources, including a mobile command center, were put at their disposal.
“We’re kind of proud of this. We fought really hard, the town has. This goes back to March. There aren’t very many success stories right now along the river here,” Americorps St. Louis Director Bruce Bailey said Thursday.
The city has recorded 900 tons of sand and 3,300 tons of rock. City Clerk Jennifer Calvin estimated that the city had spent $70,000 to $75,000 on their efforts. The United Methodist Church in Louisiana has recorded 1,567 volunteer hours and served more than 3,500 meals—with their busiest period coming late last week. They are able to continue serving because contributions of food have picked up in tandem with their growing need.
“You look up and its food coming in, food coming in. Its amazing,” volunteer Linda Blakey said.
In the southern parts of Louisiana and Clarksville dozens of homes were inundated. Displaced people went to stay with friends or family or went to shelters in Hannibal, Elsberry, or, after it opened Friday, the Louisiana YMCA.
The efforts of volunteers, city officials and the fire department quickly set up facilities in the YMCA’s gym. The first people to check in were Wayne Granger and Stephanie Mcintyre, who were pushed out of their home in the middle of the flood zone. With their pets in the pound and their valuables on high surfaces, they had traveled up to the Hannibal shelter, but shifted down to Louisiana to be closer to work.
“Every year since we’ve been here, it has flooded,” Granger said. “We have [another location] in mind, but we have to get the funds together to move.”
Granger and Mcintyre said they were impressed by the shelter set-up.
“They just did this overnight, which just makes this more astounding,” Granger said, gesturing to the rows of cots.
The pair—the only two to show up at the shelter in need of assistance—were later moved into apartment housing.
Forecasts by the National Weather Service suggest a long and steady decline for the river at both locations, but a recently issued forecast by the National Weather Service cautions that this year’s flood season may not yet be over.
The water building up in the Mark Twain Lake—currently at 628 feet—will have to be released eventually. And the river basin may be in for another wave of wet weather.