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Failing Levees Spur Major Missouri Floods

At least 20 levees have been overtopped as flood waters make their way down Missouri streams and rivers, authorities said.

"It's a major flood," Suzanne Fortin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, said Wednesday. "It won't be a record breaker, but it will be in the top three."

The floodwaters would rank among the top three on the 102, Platte, Grand and parts of the Missouri River near the cities of Sibley and Glasgow, Fortin said.

And historic river levels have been reached on the Tarkio River at Fairfax.

Lt. John Hotz of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said troopers were working 24-hour shifts near the village of Big Lake, a town of about 150 permanent residents and another 150 summer residents in northwest Missouri, after nine levee breaks inundated the community with water. The broken levees — none of them operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — included five on the Missouri River and four smaller levees along the Tarkio River and the Tarkio Creek.

It's not the federal government's responsibility to maintain every levee, reports CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers. Most of the hundreds of levees along the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers are built and maintained by the people who live next to them.

The town of Big Lake was living up to its name, and city leaders say Big Lake is a total loss, Bowers reports. Everything is under two to three feet of water.

The water from those breaks reached Big Lake Monday night and Tuesday.

"The town and lake are completely under water," said Mark Sitherwood, presiding commissioner of Holt County. "The town is a loss. At this time, we don't know, but it looks like that's what's going to happen."

The Missouri River is at its highest level since the 1993 floods, threatening small towns and even parts of Kansas City and St. Louis, reports .

No injuries were reported. Big Lake, which is about two miles from the Missouri River, is about 35 miles northwest of St. Joseph.

About 40 Missouri National Guard members worked overnight to protect a water plant in Craig, north of Big Lake. St. Joseph contributed about 6,100 unneeded sandbags to Craig after the Missouri River crested Tuesday about 4 feet lower than had been predicted in the larger river town.

Meanwhile, 60 other guardsmen and women were gathering in Lexington and Richmond to help with the flooding. Gov. Matt Blunt mobilized the guard and declared a state of emergency Monday.

Numerous highways were closed Wednesday, including U.S. 65 south of Chillicothe, Missouri 10 between Carrollton and Norborne and some state routes in Ray County. Portions of Interstate 29 near Big Lake were closed but reopened Wednesday afternoon. More road closures were expected as the floodwaters moved across the state.

"Keep in mind that roads can flood very quickly, so be alert while you're traveling and most importantly, don't ever try to cross a road that's covered with water," said Don Hillis, the system management director for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox said the closure of U.S. 65 in the Chillicothe cut off the southern part of the county from emergency responders, and the county was working with neighboring Carroll County and the highway patrol to reach residents in need.

He said floodwaters from the Grand and Thompson rivers were flooding a few businesses and homes in the southwest part of Chillicothe.

"We don't have any major reports of problem," Cox said. "I'm just thankful we didn't get any more significant rain north of us."

Nelson Heil, the presiding commissioner in Carrol County, said a burst levee on the Missouri River and smaller failures along one of its tributaries, Moss Creek, would likely force officials to close U.S. 65 south of Carrollton Wednesday afternoon.

While Heil acknowledged that floodwaters might claim some isolated homes in the southern end of the county — most of the residents left earlier this week to avoid being stranded — he said he was more concerned about the loss of some of the county's most productive farmland.

"We'll be lucky if it stops at 20,000 acres," said Heil, who said he himself has lost around 200 acres of corn and wheat. "It's really going to be rough on everybody. I know there are some people who are not going to survive this."

The Chillicothe school district's administrative office, which houses the alternative school, closed Wednesday because of flooding but all other schools were open. On Tuesday, classes dismissed at noon because of rising floodwaters, said Tom Anderson, the principal of Chillicothe High

"We expect snow and ice in the winter, but a flood you don't expect that," Anderson said.

Central Elementary Principal Gary Hawkins said he was pleased there weren't absences, noting some teachers spent up to an hour making commutes that normally take 20 to 30 minutes.

"We were very fortunate quite honestly," Hawkins said. "They made the extra effort to find the way around. hopefully the water will be going down instead of rising."

In Levasy in northeast Jackson County, authorities evacuated 300 to 400 residents Wednesday after water from the Missouri River started to encroach on the unincorporated town. At least a dozen homes were partially under water, a Jackson County dispatcher said Wednesday.

Many residents evacuated the center of Agency, a town of about 600 east of St. Joseph that is surrounded on three sides by the Platte River and was hit hard by the flood of 1993, one of the most costly and devastating floods in U.S. history.

"It isn't as bad as 1993," said Pauline Gibson, 71, who did not evacuate her Agency trailer home but had her pictures and important papers packed in case she had to leave quickly. "But it's working on it. We don't want it like '93, but they say more rain is coming and that's not good."

"The Southern Plains will continue to get deluged by flooding downpours ... and more is in store — not only today but tomorrow, too," says CBS News meteorologist George Cullen.

The torrential rains to blame for the flooding are part of the same system of storms that spawned the F-5 killer tornado that wiped out Greensburg, Kan.,last Friday.

President Bush was visiting Greensburg on Wednesday, for a firsthand look at the devastation and a briefing on recovery efforts, reports CBS News White House correspondent Peter Maer.

And in Jefferson City, the capital began preparing for flooding expected to hit Wednesday or Thursday.

After floods in 1993 and 1995, Jefferson City raised the elevation of its riverside sewage treatment plant, and the federal government bought out scores of homes on the north shore of the river. But proposals for a super levee never materialized, leaving the airport and remaining businesses vulnerable anytime the river stage exceeds 30 feet.

The National Weather Service predicted that the river would crest at 34 feet in Boonville by Friday evening, or about 13 feet above flood stage.

Residents in Hartsburg in southern Boone County spent Wednesday filling hundreds of sandbags and generally preparing for the deluge. No one has been ordered to evacuate.

The Southern Boone County Fire Protection District was overseeing operations, with 100 volunteers and 10 Boone County Jail inmates helping fill sandbags.

R.J. Tyler cleared out low-lying possessions from his home but he felt the town was prepared and throught the levees would hold.

"I hear that from the same people who tell me when to plant the tomatoes, and they've never led me wrong," Tyler said.

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