A SOBERING EXPERIENCE: CONFEREES TOUR MIDWEST

A SOBERING EXPERIENCE: CONFEREES TOUR MIDWEST

Along the flood-ravaged Mississippi River this month, bright autumn-colored leaves that decorate treetops stand in jarring contrast to dark flood-stripped tree bottoms, upturned houses and mud-washed gray fields.

Leaders of the inland waterway industry, who toured lock and dam 25 here last week and then barged downriver to Alton, Ill., were awed and sobered by the devastation.They were gathered for a periodic meeting of the Inland Waterways Users Board, which advised the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress on river project construction priorities.

A busload of them from distant points such as Texas, Washington state, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., halted conversations when their bus from St. Louis turned off a Missouri highway toward the river and lock 25, taking them into some of the worst parts of the flood zone.

Past mile after mile of crushed farm buildings, riverside cabins and silt- stripped boats or vehicles, all against the pale gray background of flood deposits, these executives from barge lines or coal- and grain-shipping companies were reduced to murmurs of "tragic" and "amazing."

Nick Marathon, a U.S. agriculture department transport specialist who tracks barge grain shipments and went on the trip, said the farming area near the river "looked like a war zone. Vegetation was scarce, hardly any sign of life, the grayness of the mud everywhere."

He said he wonders, "How long will it take for this to get back to be productive land?"

By the time the waterway officials reached Alton, below the juncture with the Illinois River, near where the Missouri enters, the power of the increasing flood levels last summer from all three rivers showed tree-line marks more than 10 feet off the ground.

Skip Hart, a spokesman for Tidewater Barge Line Inc., a Vancouver, Wash., company that plies the Columbia-Snake river system, said, "To be 1,700 miles away and read about it or see it on CNN is one thing, but to be there you can't help but be struck by it."

Jerry Stroud, the Army Corps of Engineers' assistant lockmaster at lock 25, said that until early October the lock's access road was washed out, so crews on 24-hour and later 12-hour shifts had to boat amid water snakes and leeches from nearby creeks.

Another corps official said some of those making the 40-mile trip, such as former lockmaster Steve Ellis, staffed the lock and worked to keep its aged equipment safe from flood waters even as their own homes were flooding.

Mr. Stroud said he continues to worry. The levy protecting the Winfield lock road is still broken, so new flooding will remain a threat this fall and into next spring.