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Downpours in Midwest Leave a Sense of D Vu

ALONG the Meramec River, flood-weary families here packed their belongings earlier this week and traveled the familiar road to high ground.

Sandbag lines were back in force and moving-van companies did a booming business.

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Many residents were still recovering from the disruption of the Great Flood of 1993.

Homeowner Steven Schneider had just finished $10,000 in repairs from last year's floods. ``We weren't expecting this one at all,'' he says. ``We just put in new carpet.''

Just a few weeks ago, the National Weather Service reported that prospects for spring flooding looked slim.

Rainfall had been below normal for the year. ``But there's always a threat of flooding if you get enough rain,'' says Ken Kunkle, director of the Midwestern Climate Center in Champaign, Ill.

Three days of downpours from Oklahoma to Ohio drenched the ground and caused rapid runoff that overwhelmed many rivers and tributaries.

Parts of central Missouri received 10 inches in a 24-hour period. ``The ground surrounding the rivers has never really dried out from last year's flood,'' says Lesley Petersen of the National Weather Service in Weldon Spring, Mo. ``So there was substantial flash flooding.''

Despite concerns, snow melt was not a problem this year. ``This was just very intense rainfall,'' Mr. Kunkle says.

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Delayed repairs

Broken levees still unrepaired from last summer's floods make some locations particularly vulnerable to this spring's suddenly heavy rainfall.

Sen. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri criticized the Army Corps of Engineers for slow work in patching the levees. ``How long are we going to see the crops delay and dawdle?'' he asked in a Senate speech.

The Meramec River is expected to crest today at 39 feet - 23 feet above flood stage. The Mississippi River was forecast to crest at 35.5 feet. That's five feet above flood stage but nowhere near the record crest of 50 feet last summer.

``It's rising very quickly this time, but it's also going to fall quickly,'' Ms. Petersen says.

That's little comfort to Mike Fellows and Catherine Spencer, who just moved into a new house a month ago and are now flooded out.

``We had just got settled in with everything the way we wanted it,'' Mr. Fellows says. But on Tuesday, they packed up the entire house and moved out.

In Valley Park, a suburban community of 4,000 southwest of St. Louis, the rapidly rising Meramec drove more than 1,000 families from their homes for the third time in a year.

After last year's flood, Valley Park residents decided to build a levee for protection. Although construction has begun, it won't be completed for another two years.

School was dismissed for the week on Tuesday in the Valley Park School District.

On Wednesday, teachers at the high school were hurriedly packing the contents of their classrooms and helping load moving vans while river water lapped at the edge of the school's parking lot.

``People are reeling from the two floods last year and now they're going to be hit a third time,'' said Superintendent Dennis Lea, who was overseeing the rushed evacuation.

At a nearby Red Cross shelter, Eileen McLaughlin sipped coffee and waited for word on the water level in her house. The Coast Guard knocked on their door at 3 a.m. and told them to leave immediately. ``Water was coming up to the car door by then,'' she says.

This is the sixth time the McLaughlin family has been flooded out since 1982. ``It's wearing a little thin now,'' Ms. McLaughlin says.

`That's where we live'

``Everybody keeps asking us why we go back. But that's where we live. It was a nice little town until the floods came.'' If their house is not completely ruined, McLaughlin expects to go home again when the waters recede. ``But this might be my last time,'' she says.

Mary Brown, another shelter resident, says her husband had just fixed the bathroom floor and repainted the house last week to repair damage done by previous floods. ``This wasn't supposed to happen,'' she says. But they followed a familiar pattern of moving everything upstairs and evacuating. ``We'll weather it,'' Ms. Brown says. ``We always do.''

Spring floods don't necessarily predict another waterlogged summer, Kunkle says. ``This water will drain through the system in the next few weeks,'' he says. ``But we need dry weather now,'' The skies cleared in much of the Midwest midweek but more rain is expected today and tomorrow.

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