Friday, March 14, 1997
'Soldier boys' now welcome
Former Confederate town happy for help

As the Tristate recovers from its worst flooding in 33 years, Enquirer reporter Cameron McWhirter is following the waters downriver.

The Cincinnati Enquirer

SMITHLAND, Ky. - During the Civil War, U.S. troops took over this small town to stage their assault on Confederate forts on the Mississippi River.

Its location - the confluence of the Ohio and Cumberland rivers - gave it strategic importance. But it also makes the community particularly prone to flooding.

So today, 13 decades after the great conflict, soldiers are back in town. This time the enemy is the Ohio River. And unlike the 1860s, when pro-Confederacy townspeople bore quiet resentment toward troops, folks here see the ''soldier boys'' as heroes.

''I'll tell you them soldier boys really helped us out,'' said Jean Gaines, 61, who owns the Levee Restaurant with her husband, Charles. ''We wouldn't have made it without these military boys,'' said Mr. Gaines, standing by a sandbag wall next to the restaurant.

''We've had so many people come here to help us.'' The restaurant, which has remained open throughout the flood, was surrounded by water Thursday - Mr. Gaines' birthday - as the Ohio crested here at 51.6 feet, 11.6 feet above flood stage. The river was expected to start dropping despite a steady, heavy rain.

The Levee Restaurant has been offering free hot breakfasts for the hundreds of National Guardsmen who helped build the 4-foot-high, 2-mile long sandbag wall that now protects the downtown. They are cooking food bought with donations from local people and churches.

''If all these soldier boys are going to come here to help us out, the least we can do is help them out too,'' Mrs. Gaines said.

Heavy-load trucks packed with sandbags stood by the levee, ready to shore up any leaks. As the river crested Thursday, water reached to within a foot of the top of the sandbags.

Building the floodwall was a monumental effort. Over the last week, soldiers, inmates from the county jail, schoolchildren and local volunteers filled and loaded the green, white and pink sandbags.

Spc. John Pancho, 26, normally a welder from Clarksville, Tenn., drove at least 10 truckloads of sandbags to the wall Wednesday and Thursday. ''I've never seen anything like this,'' he said wearily. ''But I think we have everything under control now.''

No one is sure how many hundreds of thousands of green and white sandbags line the wall now. Some say 500,000; others say more.

From city Councilman Harm Smith's mansion to the wooden statue of 19th-century statesman Henry Clay to mobile homes on the east side, the wall protected most of Smithland from the surging Ohio.

The sandbags look as though they will hold throughout the Flood of '97. But the rising water still has caused plenty of problems.

Farmland surrounding the town of 384 people has been flooded, cutting off many roads.

Most shops and businesses in town have closed, because customers and suppliers can't get into town. Many homes near the water now are vacant.

Several mobile homes have been hauled to higher ground. Most Livingston County offices - Smithland is the county seat - have been closed.

Ruth Powell, 63, the city clerk and treasurer, spent Thursday moving old city records from the city hall on Level Street up to the county offices or to her house. She, as do many others in the county, thinks the time has come to build a permanent levee around the town. She said a levee of about 4 feet should protect the town and save many of its historic homes.

Asked about the cost of such a project, Ms. Powell said, ''Look at the expense every time the flood happens and we build this wall.''

The river also crested Thursday in Paducah, the largest city in these parts with a population of about 29,000. The city has concrete flood walls and the gates have been put up as the river reached 51.8 feet, 12.8 feet above flood stage.

The river is expected to crest in Cairo, Ill., today at more than 16 feet above flood stage as it empties into the Mississippi.