A View From Atop a Levee

IT was the eeriest, most disarming experience to rise at 6:30 one morning, walk down to the end of Market Street, and stand on the levee. Early morning birds chirped. The sun was orange behind a cotton batting of clouds at the horizon. For all the quiet beauty, this might have been a normal, soothing morning by the river.

But just two or three feet away was an enormous brown problem, the Mississippi River, which has been rising slowly for at least a month to become the record flood of 1993. Rooftops poked out of the muddy water not 20 yards beyond the levee.

Here in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., the flooding was being fought principally with sandbags. Bulldozers and trucks were hauling and dumping rocks and gravel, but the sandbag was the weapon of choice when it came to shaping a levee.

The night before, a team of sweating volunteers had worked for hours in a line passing sandbags from one to another. Their high spirits, good humor, and willingness to be here proves once again that a disaster can bring out the best in some people.

The Army Corps of Engineers circulated illustrated instructions on how to fill sandbags and how to construct a sandbag emergency levee. In normal circumstances this information might seem humorous.

Could there really be a wrong way to fill a sandbag?

Yes. A sandbag is filled half full (and tied at the top) so it is flexible and will lie flat or curve around another bag. Fill a sandbag too full, and it becomes hard and will leave a gap when stacked with others. The Mississippi will find its way through hard stacked sandbags.

As the river rose and tried to spill over the levee into the little town of Ste. Genevieve, a helicopter ride with the Missouri National Guard was the only way to get a perspective on the power of correctly packed sandbags.

From the sky, this levee built mostly by volunteers was a long, thin dam successfully denying the Mississippi entrance to the main part of town. Each bag weighed approximately 35 to 40 pounds. With the bags went rocks and gravel, and then the whole thing was draped with plastic sheeting: Building the levee was an art form. According to the National Guard, at least 600,000 bags had been packed and stacked in Ste. Genevieve.

Six miles away from the town in a remote area, part of a packed-dirt levee had given way. Brown water rippled over the disintegrating levee and mixed with clearer water. In all directions water so dominated the landscape that it was difficult to identify the original riverbed. Yet in town, where it counted heavily, the sandbags were holding.

IT is worth mentioning all this, because battling a runaway river is not just a story of correctly packed sandbags or bulldozers.

It is also a story of remarkable people so engaged in a common effort that no matter what the river does - whether it spills over or recedes - the experience of collective stamina and friendship becomes a high point of meaning in their lives.

The volunteers talked openly and with humor in sunlight or under floodlights. The humidity was stiffling. People dripped. They laughed, kidded each other, and became friends in the heat. People from Ohio met people from Denver bagging sand in Missouri. Striving to avert a disaster was bringing out the best in them.

This kind of valuable unity may be why the little town of Ste. Genevieve has survived since French colonists began settling here in 1725.

From early days, the town was flooded periodically. No leap of imagination is required to suppose that the meaning of battling a flood was the same in, say, 1745 as it is in 1993.

This is the kind of stuff on which to build a town. Or a team, or a family, or a marriage, or a business, or a nation.

Even in a dire emergency, Ste. Genevieve had a kind of tough radiance about it. From farmers to truck drivers, from waitresses to the mayor, all the people were unfailingly genuine, cheery, and helpful.

A man who owned a quilt store told me "that quilts should never be packed away because they live and breath like people."

A farmer told me he couldn't stand the thought of retiring because it meant he would have "to go to his hired hands and say, `I'm done boys. You'll have to look for a new job.' "

A man who has lived in the same house for 72 years said, "I can't move. It's just beginning to fit me."

A woman who had been flooded out of her home six times, said, "I'll go back to my house again. You put up new wallpaper, and get that smell of a new rug, and it's not so bad."

On the blackboard at city hall where officials met each day to discuss their strategies against the rising waters, someone had written in chalk, "On the plains of hesitation lie the blackened bones of countless thousands who at the dawn of victory sat down to rest, and resting, died. DO NOT REST!"

The mayor said to me, "I sure am proud of this town."

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