Levee Keeps Missouri Town Open for Business

Following more than a week of flooding, people throughout the Midwest are bracing for more crests along the Mississippi River as floodwaters continue to drain south. Officials say another surge in the river is expected in southern Missouri this weekend, possibly hitting St. Louis by Monday.

But in Hannibal, Mo., famous for its ties to Mark Twain, a 34-foot-high levee so far is holding back the mighty Mississippi and protecting much of the author's boyhood town.

Just a block from the river, in Hannibal's historic district, Pam and Michael Ginsberg converted an early 1900s brothel into a bed and breakfast.

"We can't claim that Mark Twain ever slept here, we'd like to," Michael Ginsberg says.

"He would have been a very old man by that time," Pam Ginsberg adds.

There are few tourists in Hannibal these days, but most who venture here head to the river to see the surging waters instead of strolling down Main Street or visiting the famous Mark Twain Museum. Pam Ginsberg says it's been like this for weeks now.

"Sometimes on national news they give you the idea that we're also flooded, and Hannibal is not flooded," she says. "We have a wonderful levee and it's holding, and we're open for business."

It's up to John Hark, Hannibal's Emergency Management director, to make sure that levee holds. Hark says he's proud to be one of the town's flood babies: He was born in 1947, the year the town did flood.

"I started out dealing with the water and am still dealing with it today," he says.

The way Hannibal deals with its flood control is to set the levee and flood wall back several hundred feet from the shore. That means the town's riverfront park and marina, including the Mark Twain Riverboat dock, are all under water today. A bronze sculpture of the author and former riverboat captain next to the dock seems to be eerily floating in the muddy water. Its concrete base is completely submerged.

Hark says while it's too bad the park is under water, this mini flood plain is doing just what it was designed to do.

"It's protected our town, our historic area. That's what it is for and that's what it has done," he says.

Just to be safe though, the National Guard has added another two feet of sandbags on top of the levee. Earlier projections had the river rolling through at higher levels. But levee breaks upstream, which have flooded fields in northern Missouri and Illinois, have lowered the crest that's expected to hit Hannibal this weekend.

All day and night, Army National Guardsmen like Matthew Crounse walk the base of the earthen structure making sure everything is holding.

"These walls, even levees, I kind of put them as a roadside bomb in Iraq — you don't know exactly when they are going to go off. If you see something that doesn't look right, get out."

There have been at least 25 levees breaks this week in Missouri, Illinois and Iowa. Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt cites that high failure rate as evidence that the nation's levee system is clearly in need of repair, especially as so-called historic floods are becoming increasingly frequent.

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