Last-ditch levee attemptfails to save Mo. homes

First the National Guard soldiers stacked the Pin Oak levee with sandbags, raising it by as much as four feet.

Then they toiled to repair damage from the pounding river, dumping dirt where the water seeped through, sandbagging around leaks and propping up sections so saturated that the earth slid down, sometimes in sections hundreds of feet long.

When the levee finally gave way Friday and water surged toward this town, they refused to surrender the fight, feverishly building a new sand-filled barricade around about 100 homes in east Winfield.

But the round-the-clock battle to save the homes from the Mississippi River's onslaught ended before dawn Saturday, when water found its way underneath the barrier. By midmorning, the homes that soldiers had worked so hard to save looked to be standing in a lake.

Residents and soldiers quietly watched as the river rose.

Some folks looked stricken, others simply exhausted as they realized that their fears had been realized: an unknown amount of time outside of their homes and the foreboding task of cleaning up whatever the river left. But even as they looked out over their flooded homes, people here expressed deep thanks for what they described as heroic efforts by the soldiers.

“I think they're more heartbroken than the actual victims,” Foust said. “They tried so hard.”

By the time the final barrier broke, most of the soldiers had been working for about 24 hours, officials said, refusing to take the three-hour naps their commander offered. For days before that, they had labored feverishly on the Pin Oak levee. When the river finally beat them, some broke down.

“I've seen more men cry in these last nine or 11 days than I've ever seen cry in my lifetime,” Col. Michele Melton of the Missouri National Guard said of both devastated residents and soldiers.

The barricade failed, officials said, because they built part of it on earth instead of on asphalt in an effort to ring in a pocket of four homes.

“We'll learn lessons from this, it's the military way,” said Col. Wendul Hagler, joint chief of staff with the Missouri National Guard.

“It was a fight worth fighting,” he said, “win or lose.”