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Mississippi Crests Higher; Thousands Urged to Flee

By Dean E. Murphy
and Louis Sahagun

Los Angeles Times

ST. LOUIS

The Mississippi River heaved toward a new and higher crest Tuesday, hurling more floodwater into a tributary and through a levee on the south side of town as police shouted through bullhorns urging thousands to flee.

The river, bent around St. Louis like a comma, swept a torrent of backwater into the River Des Peres for a second time in three days. The floodwater broke through a 12-foot span of sandbags on a levee and poured into south St. Louis, much of it already drenched and devastated.

Crews ran to the dike and repaired it. At 6:30 p.m., the floodwater burst through again. This time it overwhelmed sandbags in four places along two miles of the levee. It swamped houses, buckled streets and burst a half a dozen utility mains. Tap water was contaminated. Raw sewage rose in uncounted homes.

To the northwest, Des Moines, Iowa, hoped to begin restoring its water service Wednesday. Taps and hydrants have been dry since flooding damaged a water plant 10 days ago. Refilling 810 miles of pipe was delayed by "water cheaters,'' who turned on faucets Monday and drained a half million gallons before the system repressurized.

After six weeks of flooding in the Midwest, the death toll stood at 31. Damage ranged to $10 billion. Relief for part of that seemed to be in sight. The House Appropriations Committee in Washington approved a request by President Clinton for $2.48 billion in flood aid and added $500 million. Clinton has said he might ask for more.

Following a day of general sunshine, weather in several states turned bad. Hail and rain pelted Missouri. At one point, two inches fell at St. Louis in an hour. Storms raised the danger of new flooding in parts of Kansas and Nebraska. Forecasters at WeatherData, Inc., predicted heavy rain in western Illinois.

At 7 p.m., the National Weather Service forecast a 47-foot crest in the Mississippi River near St. Louis during the night. Hydrologist Tom Dietrich said the crest might reach 47.1 feet from the river bottom early Wednesday. That would be two-tenths of a foot -- or more than two inches -- higher than a record crest overnight Sunday.

The St. Louis flood wall stands 52 feet tall, so the central city and the base of its Gateway Arch were expected to be safe. Downstream in south St. Louis and below, however, the threat was considerable. "It is hold your breath for the next 24 hours,'' Dietrich declared. "It is touch and go until this river settles down.''

The Army Corps of Engineers said the surging crest would be the highest on record along 100 miles of the river and could topple levees as far south as St. Genevieve and Cape Girardeau, Mo., where National Guard troops and volunteers rushed to shore up their river walls.

Jean Rissover, emergency operations spokewsoman in St. Genevieve, said the historic town was trying to stockpile sandbags. "A small hole of 10 to 20 feet in the levee about 12 miles from here last night took 5,000 bags to fill,'' she said. "That shows you the kind of stockpile we think we need.''

In south St. Louis, authorities said the normally timid River Des Peres was overwhelmed along its entire length because of the Mississippi backwater. Evening hail and rain only added to the river torrent. Officials said there was no relief in sight.

"This whole four-mile area between here and the Mississippi is at a critical stage,'' said St. Louis police Lt. Col. Ray Lauer. He said damaged roads could develop dangerous sink holes. "It is not what people want to hear, but we have bad news again.''

Police were "basically begging people'' along the Des Peres to leave their homes, said Candy Green, a St. Louis city spokeswoman. Some residents, so dispirited by another round of flooding, said they were finally giving up.

But others insisted they would stay in their homes until the city turned off their water and electricity.

Dawn and William Winslow, who live several houses away from where the levee broke, could not agree on the matter. Five months pregnant and at wits' end, Dawn Winslow sent the couple's three children to stay with relatives and hastily packed her own bags.

"I can't take it anymore,'' she said, standing with her husband outside their single story clapboard house. "He can do what he wants, but I'm out of here.''

William Winslow, a roofer, said he was having a difficult time leaving.

"We lose this, and we have lost everything,'' he said. "There are all kinds of strange people pulling up in this area. Who knows what they will do if I leave.''

In Des Moines, the executive director of the city water plant said he would make public the names of all "water cheaters'' who draw from their taps before the plant gets back up to full production.

"We have 200 cases that we are investigating,'' L.D. McMullen said. The cheaters, he said, risk having their water intake valves padlocked.