Missourians Use Sandbags, Humor To Survive Floods

`VIRGIE SADLER is thinking about buying a fishing pole. Not because she likes to fish, but because her front porch, once a quarter mile from the Mississippi River, is now a sandbagged island. Instead of wading to the supermarket, she says, ''I'd be better off learning to catch my dinner.''

For Mrs. Sadler and many of her neighbors on the waterlogged edges of this river town, a sense of mirth is one of the only protections they have against the second catastrophic flood in two years.

While the flood of 1995 has not nearly matched the damage wrought by the $10 billion flood of 1993, this year's deluge is posing new challenges to levees and family patience across the lower Midwest.

Cape Girardeau and neighboring towns in southeastern Missouri are in an even more precarious position than before.

This is because all of the Mississippi's nearby tributaries -- including the Ohio River -- are dangerously rain-swollen.

Moreover, coming so soon after 1993, many people are finding it hard to muster the enthusiasm to battle nature again. Volunteerism is down, local officials say. Federal disaster officials are less visible.

In another sense, though, the lessons of 1993 have helped mitigate damage this year. After that catastrophe, which rendered more than 70,000 people homeless, federal hydrologists and engineers reassessed their flood-battling strategy, which had encouraged vulnerable towns to build levees.

These earthen walls, however, left the river with little wiggle room during heavy rainfall, causing the water to rise and speeding its flow. ''The government's approach,'' says one homeowner, ''was to play God.''

But in the past two years, the federal government has spent $250 million buying out homes and farms on floodplains whose property values had plummeted. With the people gone, engineers were able to let water spill over the levees at some points, relieving pressure on towns downstream.

In addition, federal authorities encouraged remaining homeowners to buy federal flood insurance early. They implemented a 30-day delay between the time insurance is purchased and the time it goes into effect. In the past, when the waiting period was only five days, some property owners tried to apply even as the water began lapping at their driveways.

But to some Missourians, all the precautions meant little this year. Many farmers have already lost the year's crops, and others have been unable to plant because rain has been to heavy or they have been too busy constructing makeshift levees around their fields.

Although the river's crest has held steady of late and is expected to drop slightly today, more rain is forecast for this weekend, and flood-wary residents aren't taking any chances.

On a gravel lot across from the Red Star Baptist Church, a crowd of 30 volunteers rings a mound of dirt, filling white sandbags, tying them with baby-blue cords and heaving them into the backs of pickup trucks.

At the town's main pumping station, engineer David McLain keeps a careful vigil over the hulking 440-volt pumps that keep the downtown area dry. If a bolt of lightning knocked power out to the city, he says, ''We'd have about 25 minutes before water came pouring over the levee.''

Meanwhile, both up and down river, members of the Army Corps of Engineers walk levees checking for seepage and calling in truckloads of rock and sandbags whenever they notice soft spots.

Mary Burton, executive director of the American Red Cross chapter here, says Red Cross volunteers have put 36 families in motels and is planning a mass shelter.

Police spokeswoman Betty Knoll says relief groups have distributed cleanup supplies like mops, rubber gloves, bleach, and glass cleaner, and have served more than 4,500 meals.

In the town of Commerce, 15 miles down river from Cape Girardeau, the muddy Mississippi has covered the street with as much as 15 feet of water, and nearly all of the town's 200 residents have been evacuated. David Mayberry, a lifetime resident of Commerce, drove his flatbottom boat over what used to be Tywappity Street to the site of his saltbox house. Unlike most of his neighbors, Mr. Mayberry's place is dry -- but only because it is perched on a 10-foot stack of cement blocks.

After the 1993 flood, he remembers, nearly all the villagers here signed a petition to accept a federal buyout offer. But the Commerce Board of Trustees, which have since been replaced, voted against the plan in an attempt ''to keep the town alive.''

Mayberry, along with his fellow villagers, keeps the bitter irony at bay with wisecracks. ''I've always wanted a backyard swimming pool,'' he jokes. ''Now I've got one in the front yard too.''

Stopping the boat at the trunk of a partially submerged oak tree, Mayberry checks the plastic bucket he nailed to the tree yesterday and has been filling with peanuts and sunflower seeds. As he pulls away, a pair of young squirrels scampers down from the high branches and dips their noses in to eat.

''Ever since the water came up, they've been stranded,'' he says. ''I feel sorry for them. They're probably the only residents of Commerce who have never seen a flood.'' But after the water dries up, he adds, ''they may be the only ones left.''

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