Fifteen inches of rain have fallen in Poplar Bluff, Missouri over the last couple of days. That town is about 150 miles southwest of St. Louis. And it’s now depending on a saturated levy that has already been breached in places downstream. Here’s Jacob McCleland of NPR member station KRCU.
JACOB MCCLELAND: I’m standing about as close to the Black River as I can get. The river cuts through the middle of downtown Poplar Bluff, which makes this flood particularly dangerous. Beyond some partially submerged trees, you can make out the tops of some bleachers, hinting at the location of a baseball field that’s otherwise lost beneath the murky waters.
Sheriff MARK DOBBS (Butler County): The levee is so small, sometimes, you know, I think of the lack thereof, the levee versus the levee itself.
MCCLELAND: That’s Butler County Sheriff Mark Dobbs. He says trying to protect the town of 17,000 with sandbags just won’t work here. The tired, saturated earthen levee is only four feet tall in some areas and it stood no chance against the weight of all that rushing water from the Black River.
Mr. DOBBS: I don’t know what is would take to put enough sandbags. I mean, we’re talking about 15 miles worth of levees.
MCCLELAND: The levee finally broke yesterday. Water spilled over the top of the levee in 30 locations and completely broke through in three others, pouring over farmland and swamping houses. Some 7,000 people here are affected.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon deployed the Missouri National Guard on Monday. They’re helping the sheriff with water rescues. And so far over 150 people have been plucked from porches, attics, and rooftops between Poplar Bluff and the neighboring town of Qulin, some 15 miles downstream.
Some of the rescued were brought here to the Black River Coliseum, a 5,000 seat concert venue that the Red Cross converted into an evacuation center. About 300 cots are strewn about the concrete building, most of them unmade, and some with piles of magazines and books. The place seems to be overflowing with kids, running about with toys and coloring books.
Between 250 and 300 evacuees are taking shelter here. As evacuees line up for dinner donated by a local restaurant, many are wearing their anxiety on their sleeves. Another storm is forecast to sweep in from Arkansas, and nobody knows if the levee will hold long enough to save their homes.
Some flood victims, like Chrystal Pigg and her family, have been at the Coliseum since Sunday. Her mother lost her home in a flood three years ago, and now she fears that the river will sweep away her family’s belongings too.
Ms. CHRYSTAL PIGG: Like baby pictures and baby outfits that your kids, you know, wore, you know, that gets ruined, you can’t get that back. It’s gone. You know, and like personal documents and stuff. You know, you can’t – I mean home is home, you know.
MCCLELAND: Other evacuees, like Alfred Vaughn, have been through this before. He recalls fleeing the Black River in 1946, riding on a mule with his father. This time he had to leave behind a horse that he had raised from birth.
Mr. ALFRED VAUGHN: When the water comes up like that, just nowhere to take him, you know. Nowhere to go. I didn’t have a horse trailer. I’m sure it’s going to be alright. I’m sure he’ll he’ll stand in the water a little while (unintelligible) go down, won’t hurt him.
MCCLELAND: The National Weather Service predicts one more day of heavy rain in Poplar Bluff. Rescue efforts are continuing, and residents here predict a long clean-up effort.
For NPR News, I’m Jacob McCleland.