BO FOX is going eyeball to eyeball with the Mississippi River on Leport Street.
Here in this historic French colonial town of 4,400, an emergency levee made mostly of sandbags and gravel zigzags for about four miles from one end of town to the other.
Not five feet from the front porch of Mr. Fox's wood frame house, and almost waist high, the slowly rising brown waters of the Mississippi are just behind the sandbags.
For weeks, a humid storm system has hung over the Midwest, pushing the Mississippi toward a record level crest with unparalleled flooding and damage. In St. Louis last Thursday, the river was flowing past the city at a rate of 800,000 cubic feet per second, an estimated 11 times above normal levels.
Here in St. Genevieve, about 50 miles south of St. Louis, the flooding has sent the river one and a half miles out from its normal channel to lap against Ste. Genevieve's newborn levee. Before the levee went up, approximately 100 houses were flooded and three bridges put underwater.
On the river side of the levee, several houses around Fox are up to their windows in water. In the downtown area, dating back to 1725, the rapidly built levee protects several dozen French colonial homes, some built with vertical logs.
Ste. Genevieve is recognized as the first permanent European-based settlement west of the Mississippi.
Fox has removed all furniture from his first floor. Because so much water has seeped under the levee, brown water bubbles up through his toilet. His bathtub bubbles too, and the gas pump pulling water from his basement shoots it back over the levee. Earning your insurance
"If you don't put a good effort in to save your house," Fox says, "the insurance company doesn't pay. I'd say this was a pretty good effort."
All along the levee, the heroic efforts of townspeople, hundreds of other volunteers, the National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, and state and local officials, have transformed Ste. Genevieve.
"Everybody here is determined to save our town," Mayor Bill Anderson says, "but sometimes it feels like Mother Nature has the deck of cards, and she keeps pulling out the joker."
The river is expected to crest here a little over 47 feet early this week. The goal is to raise the levee high enough to stop a 50 foot crest. To do this, City Hall has been turned into a command center with briefings held at noon every day by officials organizing the effort. Knowing a bit about floods
"We've had a lot of floods around here," says Mick Schwent, emergency-preparedness director for the city," so we know a little about what we are doing."
Records of flooding here go back to the early 1700s.
A half a mile away from city hall, the volunteers at the America Legion hall provide meals to anybody.
Food is donated by corporations and organizations. The Red Cross is serving as many as 3,000 meals a day. Over the weekend, 27 homeless people stayed in the American Legion hall.
Two blocks from city hall, in humid weather reaching into the 90s, several hundred volunteers fill sandbags that are then hauled by trucks to places all along the levee. Other volunteers, many from out of state, and some inmates from a local prison, form bucket brigades, and pile the sandbags on the levee. The bagging operation continues under floodlights at night. Bulldozers move gravel and rocks into place to strengthen the base of the levee.
"These people filled 99,000 bags a few nights ago," says Major Dwight Lusk of the Missouri National Guard. "Our estimate as of July 17 is a little over 600,000 bags have been filled."
Volunteering to help, Melissa Forsythe came with her mother and daughter from Farmington, about 30 miles away.
"I was in a flood as a child in Texas," she said, "and I wanted to help here because I know what it is like to see your house with water in it."
Charlie Redmond drove with his 10-year-old son from Columbus, Ohio, 400 miles away.
"I almost went to Florida to help last year after the hurricane," he says. "I was sorry I didn't go, so I came here. And I think I'm getting more out of this than I'm giving because the people are so friendly here."
What concerns Mayor Anderson is the cost of the effort to the
city, and whether or not the federal government will help pay for it. While most materials and equipment are donated to the effort, other services and equipment had to be hired.
"The daily cost of this effort is between $50,000 and $100,000," he says. "We had to hire 30 trucks and make some other commitments. The city's annual budget is $1.7 million, so we're hoping President Clinton will help us with federal funds." Years of recovery
David Angerer, city administrator, says that the cost of repairs could go as high as $16 million. "It will take years for us to recover from this disaster," he says.
Most of the downtown businesses are closed during the height of the tourist season. Public announcements have gone out asking sightseers and tourists to stay away from the town because big, mud-splashed trucks rumble swiftly through the streets loaded with rocks and gravel. City water has to be boiled to be drinkable, and the visitor's center is closed.
For many years, Ste. Genevieve had asked the federal government to build a levee to protect the town.
"It has become a bureaucratic nightmare," said Rick Williams, editor of the Ste. Genevieve Herald.
"We were told we needed local matching funds, which for us meant raising $10 million. We have petitioned the governor over and over to have that lowered, but each time we were told we didn't qualify," he added.
But now the town is in Rep. Richard Gephardt's (D) district. Mr. Gephardt arranged for the local match of funding to be reduced to $5 million.
"Now we feel maybe it's something we can handle," Mr. Williams says. "But that was before this happened."
In many respects, Ste. Genevieve is a latecomer to what Missouri biologist Phil Covington calls "levee anarchy." As each community builds higher and higher levees, the result is a river system that loses its wetlands, and runs swiftly with fewer of the features such as backwaters and side channels to allow release of pressure when heavy rains occur. New sleeping quarters
For Rosie Bequette, the end result of river flooding is sleeping on a cot in the American Legion hall with her daughter for several weeks.
"The National Guard put a road across my yard," she says. "Tempers were flaring. Eventually the city told us we had to evacuate."
Although her house is on the safe side of the levee, she says, "I don't want to go back." But she has been unable to find a place to rent.
At the end of Market Street, Sylvanus Products, a maker of plastic binders, has shut down. The back wall of the company abuts the levee.
"We sent 170 employees home," says a weary company president Walt Timm, who has been working on the levee since July 4.
"How do you begin to thank all the people that have helped," he says, "all the friendships that have developed. It is simply remarkable the way people have pulled together."