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Along the Mississippi, river views trump flood protection

Mississippi floods don't have the impact today that they had during the Great Flood of 1993, thanks to better flood walls and levees and thousands of flood-plain homes converted to green space. But in some river towns, flood protection is a non-starter.

By Jim Salter and Jim SuhrAssociated Press / April 22, 2013

Sgt. First Class Nathan Jeffries of the Missouri National Guard 3175th MP Company from Warrenton, Mo., places sandbags on a trouble spot in a temporary levee Monday, April 22, in Clarksville, Mo. The swollen Mississippi River has strained a hastily erected makeshift floodwall in Clarksville, creating trouble spots that volunteers were scrambling to patch.

Jeff Roberson / AP

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CLARKSVILLE, Mo.

Her Missouri hamlet soon to celebrate its 200th birthday, Mayor Jo Anne Smiley embraces Clarksville's perilous place along the Mississippi River, never mind that that the waters again threaten to wipe it and its potpourri of specialty shops off the map.

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In places like Clarksville and the Illinois town of Grafton just across the river, it's always been the clear views of the Mississippi drawing the tourists, unobstructed by a permanent levee. But that's left both communities north of St. Louis vulnerable.

By Monday, the rain-swollen river strained a hastily erected makeshift floodwall in Clarksville, creating two trouble spots that volunteers were scrambling to patch — as well as build a second sandbag wall to catch any water weaseling through.

But though the Mighty Mississippi is starting to recede, another batch of rain threatens to push it back up. A swath from Oklahoma through Michigan is forecast to get an inch of rain — in some cases slightly more — through Tuesday. The National Weather Service said some river levels again could rise, blunting their slow retreat.

Mark Fuchs, a National Weather Service hydrologist, said the latest dousing could be especially troubling for communities along the Illinois River, which he said is headed for record crests.

"Along the Illinois, any increase is going to be cause for alarm, adding to their uncertainty and, in some cases, misery," he said late Monday afternoon.

Last week's downpours brought on sudden flooding throughout the Midwest, and high water is blamed for at least three deaths. Authorities in LaSalle, Ill., spent Monday searching for a woman whose van was spotted days earlier near a bridge over the flooded Illinois, and a 12-year-old boy was in critical condition after being pulled from the Big River near Leadwood, Mo., about 65 miles south of St. Louis, after floodwaters swept him away as he tried to walk across a bridge.

Flooding along the Mississippi doesn't have the impact today that it had during the Great Flood of 1993. Since then, thousands of homes have been bought out, so the flood plain in many places is largely green space. Other places have built better flood walls and levees.

But in flood-prone Clarksville, putting up permanent protection against the river is a non-starter, partly because it could cost millions of dollars the 442-person community can ill-afford without plenty of taxpayer help.

More importantly, Smiley and others say, building a flood wall would amount to sacrificing Clarksville's identity.

"The Mississippi River is out there, and we live on it," Smiley said in the town where 6,000 tons of sand has been crafted into the latest makeshift wall by locals, the National Guard and even prison inmates. "We are a tourist town, and part of that involves seeing and experiencing the river."

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