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Missouri Citizens Scramble As Levee Breaks

Defiant residents of this eastern Missouri community lost one brave struggle against the relentless Mississippi River Friday, but quickly prepared for another.

Residents and flood fighters were saddened after a burrowing muskrat brought down the saturated Pin Oak levee shortly before dawn. But within hours, a new defense was in the works - a hurriedly constructed 4-foot-tall sandbag levee to protect the 100 homes in harm's way.

"We're not quitting - the Army doesn't quit," said National Guard Col. Michele Melton, who was coordinating the sandbagging effort. "That's why we're here - to try and save these people."

The struggle to save the levee has been a round-the-clock effort for the past several days. Many of the 720 residents of Winfield and people from surrounding communities joined the National Guard in patching one trouble spot after another.

In the end, all that effort was undone by an animal that weighs no more than 5 pounds. Officials said holes bore by a muskrat that was either seeking food or building a den led to the levee's downfall.

"How bad do I feel? You have no idea," said Travis Tutka, the Corps of Engineers' dam safety expert who has helped coordinate the effort to save the levee. "The challenge we met for so long out here - I can't come up with the words for the feeling. The levee did as well as it did because of the resolve of the people who worked on it."

Resident Linda Wilmesherr was heartbroken. She operates a horseback riding school and essentially suspended the business so that she and her workers could bring in equipment and help save the levee.

"It's so disappointing," Wilmesherr said, peering through binoculars at the water pouring through what appeared to be about a 30-foot gap in the levee. "With all the guns in this county, couldn't we kill a muskrat?"

The only bright spot was the site of the breach - at the far southern corner of the levee. About 3,000 acres will be flooded before the water slowly makes its way to the cluster of homes at the north edge of the flood plain. Lincoln County emergency operations chief Kelly Hardcastle figured it would be several hours before the water got to the homes.

Melton was confident the sandbag levee would be up by then. With 30,000 sandbags already filled, she figured guardsmen could construct a wall at a pace of about 300 feet per hour. The wall will be about a half-mile long.

"The Army wants to win," Melton said. "Just because the levee broke, we have homes to save."

The muskrat holes were first discovered on Monday. Sandbags were placed at the spot.

"We thought we had that area controlled," Tutka said.

In fact, other areas of the levee had become more concerning. The constant pressure from the river turned the relatively small, private levee to mush. By midweek, mudslides were forming. Levee workers described the walk atop the levee akin to walking on a waterbed.

Officials were constantly patrolling the levee to check for weak spots. At 4 a.m. Friday, three corps officials visited the south end of the levee and all was fine. At 5:03 a.m., when members of the National Guard did a walk-by, they saw the break - water was already violently pushing sandbags off the levee. It was too late to save it.

A siren sounded and sheriff's deputies went door-to-door to get everyone out of the homes in harm's way, yelling, "The levee broke! Get out!"

Winfield resident Debbie Halcomb, 52, was sleeping in a bed elevated on milk crates to protect it from potential floodwaters when the siren sounded.

"Oh my God. I was hoping it would hold, but it didn't," Halcomb said. "I think we probably lost it on this last bunch of rain."

Lincoln County authorities put out an emergency call for sandbagging volunteers to meet at Winfield High School. Only National Guard troops and emergency responders were allowed in the area around the homes.

Elsewhere in Missouri, the flood news was improving. Canton in far northeast Missouri lifted its voluntary evacuation, with officials saying the levee protecting the town of 2,500 residents was sound and the river level was dropping.

Still, Emergency Management Director Jeff McReynolds said residents and merchants who have moved furnishings to a secure area may not want to put them back just yet. With the river so high, heavy rain in the wrong place could still cause problems, he said.