Raging floodwater tore through the bottom of the longest levee along the northern Mississippi River on Sunday, trapping five people, two of them in treetops filled with snakes. The river closed six miles of the Central Illinois Expressway and swamped 45,000 acres of prime farmland.
"We have a breach! We have a breach!" a levee inspector shouted into his two-way radio as the Sny levee, the second-largest river berm in the nation, burst at 11:23 a.m., local time. Nine levee workers fled in trucks and on foot, but three were trapped on bulldozers and two climbed into trees, along with dozens of snakes.
They thought the snakes were nonpoisonous, said Harold Colston, in charge of levee communications. But he said the workers did not stop to check. They tried to hurl the snakes out of the treetops, Colston said, but the snakes slithered back up and twisted around their legs. Finally, all five workers were rescued by helicopter. None were injured.
It was a frightening end to a dramatic battle. Volunteers, National Guardsmen and inmates had spent weeks reinforcing the levee in one of the most critical defenses of agricultural territory in the Midwest. The Sny levee is 52 miles long. Only the 1,700-mile Main Stem levee, along both sides of the calmer southern part of the river, protects more U.S. farmland.
To the west, the Missouri River swamped the water plant in St. Joseph, Mo., knocking out service to nearly 80,000 residents. Officials said it would take at least four days to repair it. People crowded into grocery stores to buy bottled water and paper plates. City officials and the National Guard brought in drinking water and set up distribution centers.
For the first time in nearly a week, parts of the Midwest got a forecast for drier weather. The National Weather Service said no new rain is expected in northern Missouri, Iowa, Kansas or Nebraska until late today or early Tuesday. Then, the forecasters said, it would rain again.
The floods' death toll stood at 41. Crop and property damage topped $10 billion.
The Sny levee protected two large agricultural areas of Illinois. It was the northern portion of the levee that burst. Still safe, behind the southern portion, were 65,000 acres of farmland. Running east and west between the two areas is a barrier called Kaiser Creek. Most of its floodgates seemed to be holding.
At one point, however, levee workers worried about a leak. Tom Hill, manning a levee inspection shack at Pleasant Hill, said floodwater had begun running through the Kaiser Creek barrier near New Canton. "We have to whip that," he declared, "or we're in trouble through the whole area.
"It tears your little heart out," Hill said. "We can't imagine what's going to happen next."
In Hull and other small towns behind the Sny levee, fire sirens began to wail moments after Dean Paben, a levee inspector, repeated his radio warning: "We have a break!"
Sand on the back of the levee had slipped down, said Jeannie Cox, an official at the Sny Island Levee and Drainage District. Levee workers thought it had hardened the berm, she said. "This was a solid spot in the levee."
But then, she said, floodwater from the Mississippi "just blew out from the bottom."
The blowout grew into a breach 100 feet wide, then doubled in size. Water roared through the levee and trapped the five workers. The three on the bulldozers were relatively safe, Colston said, but the two who climbed into the trees ran into a terrifying problem.
As they shinnied up, he said, they encountered the snakes in the branches. So far as the workers could tell, Colston said, the snakes were nonpoisonous. "But they weren't about to take a good hard look to see what kind of snakes they were. They wanted to get the hell out of there."
The Sny levee area, he said, is known to be a habitat for deadly water moccasins.
The Illinois National Guard had assigned four UH-1 Huey helicopters from Midway Airport in Chicago to the airport in Quincy, Ill., about 40 miles north of Hull. As the levee workers tried to throw the snakes out of the trees, Colston guided helicopters from the squadron to the breach in the levee.
The choppers hovered over the trees and bulldozers and plucked all of the levee workers to safety.
Colston said the rescue took little more than 20 minutes. "But it seemed like two hours. It was wild."
Water rose behind the broken levee like spreading pain. It took the Mississippi only four hours to cover nearly 45,000 acres. Kevin Keithly watched it consume his 160 acres of soybeans and corn. "That water," he said, "was moving at a fast walk."
People fled the towns of Hull, East Hannibal, Sehorn and Fall Creek. Many already had left. In all, authorities said, about 2,000 evacuated their homes. Neighbors said goodby, loaded cars, trailers and pickups with their household goods and drove away.
They carried furniture, propane tanks, pianos, file cabinets, desks.
Wayne Cole, a resident of Hull, drove out of town and stopped to look back. "All of it," he said, "will be under eight feet of water by morning."
Some roads were blocked by floodwater, including Illinois Highway 336, known as the Central Illinois Expressway. The highway is the main route between Quincy and Springfield, the state capital.
Wild animals fled in front of the rising floodwater. Deer, rabbits and possums crossed Highways 57 and 96. One fawn was killed by a car.
At 9 p.m., local time, the floodwater was a mile from downtown Hull. Five workers shored up the city's red brick well house. They piled sandbags 12 feet tall around the structure and tried to brace them into place with old doors, pieces of wood and poles.
"We think this will hold," said Kirk Rueb, manager of the Hull water system. "But who knows?"
He and the others climbed to the top of the two-story well house and looked across fields of soybeans toward a line of water on the horizon.
Blake Roderick, manager of the Pike County Farm Bureau, said the evacuation had been orderly. Most people, he said, had scattered to the homes of relatives, friends or strangers out of the area who had volunteered shelter.
At the edge of town, Hull had posted a sign boasting its population: 500.
Somebody had stricken out the two zeros.
In St. Joseph, city officials said the Missouri River had overwhelmed the water plant, damaging seven pumps and an electrical control panel.
Crews had spent all day Saturday sandbagging the plant, owned by the Missouri-American Water Co., along the side of the river. But when the Missouri crested at 33 feet as measured from a standard elevation near the river bottom, it climbed over the top of the sandbags.
Kristi Sinn told the Associated Press it might take four days, perhaps more, before the plant could be repaired.
One St. Joseph resident, Diane Clark, who has a family of five, welcomed the drinking water that was being trucked in. "But you can only get 10 gallons a day," she said. She was trying to find more anywhere she could.
Across the state in St. Louis, city workers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plugged a leak under the city flood wall. "If there is any leakage at all, it is only minimal," said Candy Green, a city spokeswoman. She called the situation "stabilized."
She said this meant the city was prepared for a new crest in the Mississippi, expected to reach 48 feet next Monday. The flood wall is 52 feet tall, leaving room to spare. Damage has tipped it forward an inch. The slight lean, however, is not expected to be dangerous.
To stop the leak, workers dumped rocks the size of golf balls on both sides of the wall and erected a secondary levee as a backstop.
In south St. Louis, where a Mississippi tributary, the River Des Peres, winds along the city limits, municipal crews and volunteers worked round the clock to build a levee to 49 feet high.
Authorities called for more sandbaggers, and thousands turned out, including pregnant women and people with health problems.
The Des Peres has flooded twice in recent weeks, severely damaging hundreds of homes.
Still farther south, the Mississippi plowed through the Bois Brule levee near Perryville, Mo., nearly killing a levee inspector.
He was identified as Harold Smith, 52, an inspector for the Corps of Engineers, who was sitting on the levee in a pickup, volunteering his off-duty time to keep an eye on the river. At 3 a.m., the levee burst right under the truck.
The pickup, with Smith inside, fell 15 to 20 feet straight down into the breach.
Dave Hotop, who farms about 900 acres of soybeans and corn, and Ted Grenauld, a neighbor, saw it happen. They were in Grenauld's truck and shone a spotlight on the breach.
"All of a sudden the back end of the truck went down," Hotop said, "and we couldn't at first tell what was going on. Then we saw the truck slide down the levee, and we seen the water rolling inside. And then the pickup slid more, and then it just dropped out of sight. It just vanished."
Hotop and Grenauld backed their truck toward the hole in the levee, but they soon realized that Smith and his truck were nowhere to be found. The 300-foot gash was growing--and advancing toward them.
"There was nothing that we knew that we could do," Hotop said. "The section was falling, so we just got out of there."
Somehow, Smith managed to climb out a window.
The Mississippi tossed and turned him for about a mile before he was rescued, said Corps of Engineers spokesman Lou Chiodine. A helicopter took him to Perry County Memorial Hospital with cuts and bruises.
The hospital said he was in stable condition.
For three weeks, dozens of farmers, Army engineers and National Guard troops had patrolled the 36-mile levee, some on foot. By noon, there was little left for them to do but watch the advancing river steal homes and farms.
About 125 people live in the area, known as Bois Brule Bottom, Most of them have homes in or near the tiny town of McBride, about eight miles north of the break.
It took about six hours for the river to reach the farms near McBride, and it was a cruel and agonizingly slow advance--as if Mother Nature was savoring every inch. Hotop and his family had long ago left their farmhouse for a homestead on higher ground. His 75-year-old mother, Edna, walked to the edge of the filthy, stinking river.
She saw a snake, then some frantic field mice swimming for their lives. She pushed her rubber-soled shoes to the edge and waited patiently for the water to touch her toes.
"I just wanted to do it for some reason, I don't really know why," she said, as her eyes brimmed with tears. "I just had to feel it for some reason."
Braun reported from Hull, Ill.; Murphy from Perryville, Mo. Times staff writers Judy Pasternak in Chicago, Edith Stanley and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles contributed to this story.