Muskrat bores hole, brings down levee

Defiant residents of this eastern Missouri community lost one 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 quickly constructed 4-foot-tall sandbag levee to protect 100 homes in the floodwaters' path.

“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.”

Many of the 720 residents of Winfield and people from surrounding communities have spent the past several days helping the National Guard patch trouble spots.

In the end, their efforts were undone by an animal that weighs no more than 5 pounds. Officials said holes bored by a muskrat that was either seeking food or building a den brought the levee down.

“How bad do I feel? You have no idea,” said Travis Tutka, the Army 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 a gap in the levee that appeared to be about 30 feet wide. “With all the guns in this county, couldn't we kill a muskrat?”

The only good news was the location 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 estimated 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 muskrat holes were discovered on Monday; they were covered with sandbags. But as they were covered, the constant pressure from the river turned the relatively small, private levee to mush.

By midweek, mudslides formed. Levee workers said walking atop the berm was like walking on a waterbed.

Officials constantly checked 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 away sandbags. It was too late to save the levee.

A siren sounded and sheriff's deputies went door-to-door to get everyone out of the homes, 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. AP writer Betsy Taylor contributed.