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Levee Breached Near St. Maries St. Joe Rising An Inch Every Three Or Four Hours As Snowpack Melts

Tue., May 13, 1997

A levee downstream from St. Maries crumbled Monday, swamping Shepherds Road and threatening basements with floodwaters.

The levee is along Cherry Creek, which feeds into the St. Joe River. The river and Lake Coeur d’Alene are so bloated with runoff that the river was backing up into the creek.

“We’ve been at flood stage since April 21,” said George Currier, Benewah County civil defense coordinator. “There’s been a lot of pressure on that area a long time.”

The breach, 50 feet long, was the first failure in St. Maries’ vast system of levees and flood-control devices. But it may not be the last, Currier said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see this event happen once more,” he said.

The St. Joe River was creeping upward at a rate of about an inch every three or four hours Monday as high temperatures shrank the mountains’ record snowpack.

Lake Coeur d’Alene was at 2,133.2 feet, more than 5 feet above summer level. The lake could rise another 2 feet by the end of next week, said Pat Lynch of Washington Water Power Co.

In Benewah County, officials expect the St. Joe River to reach nearly 2,139 feet by Friday, which is 5 feet above flood stage and only inches below the top of the levees in some places.

Residents have placed thousands of sandbags atop the dikes, and a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-fighting team completed a project last week to raise portions of three levees.

After the Cherry Creek levee collapsed late Monday morning, the corps commandeered truckloads of fill dirt for an emergency repair job.

“They got a track hoe out there right off the bat, and I don’t know how many trucks they had hauling dirt,” said resident Gerry Brown. “They sent one of their crews from another job, and they were there, Johnny-on-the-spot.”

Because of the water over the road, Brown drove his tractor to the levee to watch the work. The road was closed temporarily.

The county arranged for a skid plate from a logging operation to close off the culvert between the St. Joe River and Cherry Creek, which is running at or below summer level and, alone, posed little threat to the neighborhood.

Most of the homes in the area are built onto the backside of the levee along the river, and their main floors are above the 100-year flood level, Currier said. Residents were advised to empty their basements.

Given where they’re built, Currier said, “those homes are awfully fragile.

The river rose above flood stage Sunday for the first time in Calder, 24 miles upstream of St. Maries. The overflow put the road to Calder a few inches underwater, but it still was passable Monday, said resident Jim Oliver.

“We’re a long ways from having the high water we had last year,” Oliver said.

The Coeur d’Alene River also rose above flood stage Monday, but was causing no serious problems, according to Kootenai County Disaster Services.

Big boats were doing the most damage in Kootenai County, said Sandy Von Behren, disaster services coordinator.

“We’ve had a lot of complaints about people not observing the no-wake zone,” she said. Boat wakes on the high water erodes the banks and has flooded some homes lining the shore, she said.

“As the water rises, it’s only going to get worse, and as the temperatures rise people will stay out on the lake,” she said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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