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Two Major Rivers Surge Together; Key Bridge Cut Off : Disaster: The Mississippi and the Missouri destroy flood barriers and force hundreds to flee. Levee accident sets off a spectacular gasoline explosion, fire.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS; Kennedy reported from St. Louis; Sahagun from Des Moines. Times staff writers Robert L. Jackson in Washington; Judy Pasternak in Niota, Ill.; Stephen Braun and Tracy Shryer in Chicago, and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles contributed to this story

Two of the mightiest rivers in America, the Missouri and the Mississippi, washed together Friday about 20 miles above their normal confluence, punching through levees and rolling floodwaters across a peninsula trapped between them like a frightened animal. Hundreds of people fled after initially defying orders to evacuate.

Officials sent military trucks to rescue the stragglers. The two rivers drove more than 7,000 people from their homes, mostly on farms in St. Charles County, Mo., north and west of the St. Louis suburbs. Neither river touched St. Louis itself, but 1,000 volunteers sandbagged the River Des Pres, south of the city, as it crept toward the top of a 45-foot levee.

Farther north, the Mississippi smashed a 100-yard hole through a levee at West Quincy, Mo., closing the only bridge for 250 miles. Water churning in a white froth sucked two barges loaded with rocks and grain through the levee. It threw one into a service station on shore. The barge and the floodwater knocked over gasoline tanks, and they exploded into flame.

To the northwest, seven inches of rainfall whipped the Red River into a frenzy. The river, which divides Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., rose four feet in six hours. It swept through both Fargo and Moorhead and swamped their sewer systems. Raw sewage flushed backward. It rose from pipes and flooded into a hospital and hundreds of homes.

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Estimates of total flood damage in the Midwest ranged from $8 billion to $9 billion. The death toll stood at 26, and the number of homeless approached 40,000. Nor was the worst over. The rain, which fell intermittently throughout the day in parts of North Dakota, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, was forecast to continue with only sporadic relief.

Faced with a mounting disaster, President Clinton scheduled his third visit to the Midwest in two weeks. He planned a “flood summit” today in St. Louis with officials from nine states. The President has asked Congress for $2.5 billion in aid for flood victims throughout the area and said he probably will request more.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said in Washington that flooding has damaged “an incredible agriculture belt” which provides two-thirds of America’s corn, half of its soybeans and a fifth of its wheat. Nonetheless, he said, “we do not consider these losses of such magnitude that they will jeopardize the food supply or significantly affect food prices.”

Forecasters, however, made it clear that the magnitude of losses would increase.

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“Little relief from the flooding can be expected over the next week,” said Marty McKewon, senior meteorologist for WeatherData Inc., a private weather forecasting service. He pinpointed the areas most likely to get heavy rain today as Minnesota, eastern Nebraska and Iowa.

“It does not appear heavy rain will fall in the Dakotas,” he said. “Sunday looks like another day for heavy rain, however, in eastern Nebraska, Iowa and northern Missouri. Major flooding should continue this weekend in Iowa due to the likelihood of heavy rain. And more heavy rain is forecast Monday and Tuesday from Kansas through Missouri.”

Missouri

The mighty Mississippi and Missouri rivers swept together at their new confluence early Friday after the Mississippi had broken through several minor levees and spread nine miles across a peninsula hooked like a crooked finger around the top of St. Louis and its northern suburbs.

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Soon Mississippi River water was lapping at the back of a major levee holding the Missouri.

Then the Missouri swept over the top of its dike. Within hours, it had punched holes at several places along the barrier and was flowing through with impunity.

About 7,000 people on the peninsula followed orders to evacuate, but hundreds stayed behind, trying to brave it out.

As the water level increased, many of them fled. Army trucks brought out the last few who tried to remain.

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For days, there had been speculation that one of the rivers might cut a new channel to the other. But Gary Dyhouse, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydrologist, said it had not happened. “That’s a total exaggeration,” he said. “It’s basically impossible for the river to cut a channel in one flood.

“When the flooding is over the rivers will go back to their old channels.”

The peninsula includes the community of St. Charles, Mo. At least four major breaks in the Missouri levee occurred nearby, but most of St. Charles, population 55,000, was on high ground.

Volunteers--children and middle-aged businessmen alike--passed sandbags up to the levee.

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One of them was Tim McClokkey, who had been driving from Hudson, Wis., to Tennessee when he heard that help was needed.

“I couldn’t just keep going,” he said. “You’ve got to help at times like this. It’s good karma.”

Down the line, the volunteers made light of a serious situation.

“I’ll have to go to New Delhi next year for vacation to top this,” said Al Fulvio, a sales representative.

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“Yeah,” said Bill Dickenson, a food broker. “I told my boss I was going sandbagging, and he said I’d been sandbagging for the last three years.”

Water spread for miles where the levee had broken. A sod farm was covered. Just off a road, two fawns nibbled on weeds beside the water, and several animal control officers were trying to capture them.

“They are trapped because of the water,” one said, leading the fawns to safety.

In south St. Louis, people felt equally trapped. The River Des Pres was expected to crest Monday at 46 feet--one foot higher than its levee.

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Volunteers hefted sandbags to build the levee higher.

“They’re working fast and furious,” Candy Green, a spokesman for the city emergency management agency, told the Associated Press. Authorities recommended that about 200 homes be evacuated.

Downtown St. Louis was expected to be saved by a flood wall.

Elsewhere in Missouri, another dike on the Missouri River broke near the small towns of Treloar, Marthasville and Dutzow. All were evacuated.

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“It’s all over,” Jim Buescher, chief of the Marthasville Volunteer Fire Department, told the AP. “We are prepared for the very, very worst. We are moving stuff to higher ground. We’ve got a few hours before we get major water here.”

In West Quincy, John Hark, the Marion County emergency management director, said the Bayview Bridge was closed when the levee protecting its Missouri approach was breached by the Mississippi. “It was basically Jell-O,” he said, because of constant pounding from floodwater.

The river swept through the levee, frothing like rapids. The force sent floodwater cresting in white waves out onto the shore. The water sucked two barges through the levee, Hark said. One was loaded with rocks and the other with grain. The river pushed them with such strength that it threw one onto the shore.

The barge hit a gasoline storage tank at the Ayerco convenience center, a large service station and minimart, Hark said. Floodwater slammed into additional storage tanks, he said, and knocked them over.

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Gasoline spilled into the floodwater. It was ignited, Hark said, apparently by a downed power line.

The rushing water spread the gasoline very quickly over a large area of the river. As the gasoline burned on top of the water, it sent billowing orange flames into the night sky.

No injuries were reported on shore, said Deborah Dombeck, duty officer for the U.S. Coast Guard, which is handling shipping emergencies on the river. But she said one person was thrown into the flood but was rescued by police.

“I spent three weeks trying to save that levee,” said Ralph Martin, owner of the gas station. “I felt so confident I took my wife and kids to see a movie tonight. Oh, Jesus, I can’t believe it burst!”

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The breach in the levee could spread floodwater across 15,000 acres, Hark said. Closing the Bayview Bridge, he said, cuts a crucial link between Missouri and Illinois. “The bridge is (in) wonderful (shape),” he said, “if we could get to it.

“That was our last link. It’s going to have a drastic impact on us. We send a lot of trade goods back and forth. This paralyzes this whole part of the country.”

Upper Midwest

In the upper Midwest, Fargo and Moorhead had little warning when the floodwater hit.

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The Red River, which flows northward into Canada, spread rapidly through the twin cities. It flooded 75% of the homes in Fargo, population 75,000, with at least two inches of water and sewage.

In some homes, it climbed to two feet.

Even Mayor Jon Lindgren had water in his basement. “There’s a drain in the floor,” he said, “and it just belched and brown cloudy water started to seep out. . . . A lot of houses smelled pretty ripe this morning, including my own.”

Fargo’s drinking water seemed safe.

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“We’re surviving,” Lindgren said. “There is a lot of frustration, but people are coping and cooperating. We asked them not to run water except for minimum amounts. We asked them to reduce showering and flushing. . .. It’s pretty stable, but we’re watchful. If we don’t get pumps in place, we could have more back up.

“Hopefully that won’t happen.”

At the Dakota Hospital in Fargo, spokeswoman Carrie Johnson said sewage was blocking the power plant. Twenty inches of dirty water had flooded the central supply facility.

“The National Guard came in with pumps,” Johnson said. “That’s what really helped save us. . . . We were delayed slightly on surgery.”

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Three feet of water and sewage invaded the Fargodome, a new arena for football, basketball and concerts. Some of its artificial turf floated on top of the water.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Michael Lucas, assistant director of sales and marketing. “The turf looked like a giant air mattress. Desks and office equipment were floating around in the offices.”

In Moorhead, one man was hospitalized after he tried to disconnect electrical appliances in his flooded basement.

Todd Osmond, a Fargo police officer, said streets in both cities were closed. “Arteries are stopped,” he said. “Barricades are up in some locations.”

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In both cities, he said, the rule of thumb is if a driver cannot see the curb he should not use the road.

Iowa

In Iowa, disaster authorities at Des Moines turned from emergency response to full-scale recovery efforts and prepared to send water back into the mains for 250,000 residents.

City officials promised that water would be back in some taps starting Monday, but warned that it would be good only for bathing and laundry. They said it would take another month to provide water that is safe to drink.

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The city has been without water in its taps for nearly a week. The Des Moines water plant was swamped with contaminated floodwater last Sunday.

Ever since, residents have had to rely on 2.5 million gallons trucked in each day to 93 distribution centers.

L.D. McMullen, general manager of the water plant, pleaded for residents to use the water sparingly once the system is back on line. Giving in to the temptation to take prolonged showers or flush toilets en masse, he said, could extend the water outage for several days.

Returning the water system to operation and restoring firefighting protection will come in three phases.

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The first phase will begin Sunday morning, when the pipelines are filled and relieved of air, which accumulated when the mains were emptied six days ago. Later that day, storage facilities will be filled so the system can be flushed and firefighting capabilities can be provided.

The last step comes Monday, when water officials will ask customers to open intake valves step by step, depending on where they live. Water will be released, officials said, a bit at a time, lowest elevations first.

“We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up,” McMullen said. “Our overall success will be totally dependent upon how our customers use water.”

Meanwhile, hazardous materials teams combed city streets and river banks for leaking chemical containers dumped by the flood. A national guardsman, Steven M. West, 35, of Johnston, Iowa, was electrocuted when an antenna he was raising hit a power line.

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A caravan of 10 chartered buses brought 500 volunteers from St. Paul, Minn., armed with shovels, work gloves and garbage bags to help clean up the flood-battered Valley Junction area west of downtown Des Moines, where at least 200 homes sustained heavy damage.

“The floods never came in my house before, but this time, oh man, bang!” said Richard Pantier, 70, leaning on a cane and surveying the buckled floors in the living room of his modest one-story home a few hundred feet away from the still-swollen Des Moines River.

“I’m a nervous wreck,” he said, shaking his head and trying not to cry. “Mother Nature plays some dirty tricks sometimes.”

A few doors down, Rose Hopkins, 52, stood beside her own mountain of destroyed belongings and said: “When I first went back in the house after the flooding, I laughed, then I cried. Now, I’m digging out. Starting all over.”

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Citywide, the cleanup effort was expected to last through the summer.

Real estate agent Dave Schladetzky, 26, and dental student Michelle Hillman, 24, had more to worry about than dirty clothes and the last time they had a long, hot shower. They planned to get married today.

Flood or no flood, the ceremony was still on. They said it would cost them $25,000 and be attended by more than 100 guests flying in from across the country.

The wedding had almost come a cropper when the flood knocked out power, water and telephones. Suddenly the hotel where it had been scheduled was no longer available. The cake maker had five feet of floodwater in his bakery.

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The couple scrambled to reserve rooms at a hotel in suburban West Des Moines, which still had water in its taps.

“The show had to go on,” Hillman said. “So, we called all 250 guests to tell them about the change in plans. About 180 said they could make it.”

The ceremony is planned for a hotel atrium in front of a 10-tier waterfall. The waterfall, of course, was shut down. But hotel managers said they would make an brief exception for the couple and let the water flow.

“It has been,” Schladetzky said, “a very, very nutty, nutty week.”

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ISLAND IN THE MIDWEST

Drenching thunderstorms on Thursday and Friday caused the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to begin mixing 20 miles upstream from where they normally meet, turning an area of land into a virtual island.

1. 100-foot section of levee breaks just north of St. Charles

2. Rivers begin to run together on the peninsula, home to about 7,000 people

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3. The city of St. Charles, population 55,000, is on higher ground and is not expected to be flooded

4. Water expected to crest at St. Louis Monday about nine feet below the flood wall protecting that city.

Flood Misery Spreads

The battle against high water reached to Fargo, N.D., on Friday. Here’s a roundup of the trouble spots:

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A. Fargo, N.D.: Sewage backs up into homes after heavy rains overnight

B. Des Moines: Time-table for estoring running water is pushed back.

C. St. Louis area


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