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St. Louis Braces Flood Wall as Record Crest Approaches City : Disaster: Hundreds in nearby town rush to get belongings out of the way of the surging Missouri River. High water topples railroad bridge.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Under the command of an unflappable engineer in khakis and a hard hat, workers drilled holes, dumped limestone and pumped cement Thursday to finish plugging a leak under the St. Louis flood wall as a record-high crest barreled down the Missouri River.

The crest, approaching from the west, was expected to collide with floodwater from the Mississippi River sometime Tuesday just north of St. Louis. The collision will come at a roiling confluence of the two rivers that many in this braced but apprehensive metropolis of 2 1/2 million people have started calling “Missourippi.”

Then the flood crest, predicted to climb to 48 feet, measured from a standard elevation established by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will rush past the flood wall, which is 52 feet tall. Joe Schwenk, a civilian Corps of Engineers employee who is in command of repairs, said the wall would be ready. He said he felt “comfortable” that it would save St. Louis.

The weather might help. After weeks of rain, the sun beat down all day on much of the Midwest. The National Weather Service said the area would have at least a week of hot, dry air. It was expected to ease two months of flooding that has killed 43 people and caused more than $10 billion in damage.

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As rising water in the Missouri rolled east, it rounded a horseshoe bend early in the day and collapsed a railroad bridge more than 220 miles west of St. Louis.

The Gateway Western Railroad was not using the bridge, which led to the town of Glasgow, Mo. Floodwater had eaten away the foundation of a pier and tipped it by at least an inch on Wednesday, leaving a 200-foot section of track waving in the wind. Then, on Thursday, the pier dropped six inches, and the bridge toppled.

A railroad worker had crossed the structure in a handcar about half an hour before it fell, said Dave Sulo, a bridge management specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard in St. Louis. But he said no one was hurt when the bridge finally gave way.

To the west, in Hardin, Mo., the Missouri washed through a cemetery, unearthing more than 60 caskets and scattering bodies. Sheriff’s deputies and National Guard troops tried to retrieve them, but some sank.

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Merging Rivers

When the crest reaches the St. Louis area, it will come first to a 10-mile wide expanse of foul-smelling water created two weeks ago when the Missouri and Mississippi rivers flooded together about 20 miles north of their normal confluence.

Near the middle of the area, the people of West Alton, Mo., have built a makeshift marina along one of the few dry roads left. They call it “Last Hope Landing.”

From there, residents of West Alton ran a daylong shuttle of motorboats to salvage whatever was left of their household goods before the crest hits. They sped over the tops of cornfields and streets, accustomed to the fact that whole neighborhoods have been covered with 10 feet of water.

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Maneuvering carefully past low-slung power lines, floating natural-gas tanks and matted corn silk that could jam propellers, the boats returned to the landing loaded with heaps of clothing, television sets, vacuum cleaners and fans.

Some people fished in city streets that had become murky lagoons boiling with bluegill, crappie and turtles.

“Ten percent of these people are mad at the world,” said Steve Daugherty, one of several Coast Guard officials on hand to monitor the activity. “The rest--victims and volunteers alike--are amazingly resilient.”

Among the resilient were landscaper Mike Murphy, his girlfriend, Paula Atkins, and their two dogs. They all climbed aboard an aluminium skiff and headed out to survey the damage at a mobile home where they had lived for five years.

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“I got my guns out,” said Murphy, 39, wading through knee-deep water and clouds of hungry mosquitoes inside the mobile home. “Now I’ve got to save some furniture and clothing that’s gettin’ awful moldy from the moisture and sun beatin’ on it.”

Later, air-conditioner repairman Walter Wunderlich and his wife, Vickie, boarded a bass boat and set out on their second trip home in two weeks with a deep sense of dread.

“Every time we go back it’s worse,” said Vickie Wunderlich, a pharmacy technician. “There’s more mold, more wallpaper peeling, more frogs dropping off the ceiling--and the smell of rotting corn mixed with diesel fuel.”

After a five-minute cruise, the Wunderlichs arrived at their modest, single-story home to find their new refrigerator floating on its side on the front porch.

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“Damn!” Walter Wunderlich said. “That really bothers me.”

His wife donned waist-high rubber waders, climbed off the boat and sloshed through their front door to take stock.

She emerged a few minutes later with the first of several armloads of pots and pans, rugs, mirrors, clothes and documents. She dumped all of it into the boat.

“Oh, no!” she shouted, as a prized antique Coca-Cola bottle slipped from her grasp and sank in the floodwater. “I guess the river wanted it back. I found it floating in the Mississippi River 10 years ago.”

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St. Louis

Just to the south in St. Louis, Schwenk, 45, and his workers focused their concern on the city’s 11-mile flood wall, levees and pumps protecting 3,800 acres of prime industrial land, home to trucking companies, coal terminals, auto salvage yards, a sewage treatment plant and a medium-security prison.

The bulk of St. Louis proper is high on a bluff and in no danger of flooding. But “we need this,” said Todd Waelterman, a city engineer working with Schwenk, as he gestured toward the industrial area. “This is jobs.”

Last Thursday, the flood wall sprang a leak where the Mississippi had caused a backup and undermined it. What had been seepage became a 10,000-gallon-a-minute gush that soon surrounded a nearby plating company.

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After a week of work, Schwenk and his team were confident that they had the problem under control. “I feel comfortable with this section now,” he said.

Pasternak reported from St. Louis; Sahagun from West Alton, Mo. Times staff writers Edith Stanley in St. Louis and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles contributed to this story.


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