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Muskrats blamed for levee breach on Mississippi

  • Story Highlights
  • Muskrat holes weaken levee north of St. Louis, Missouri, officials say
  • Late-night rains prove too much for levee to handle
  • Mississippi River being held back by sandbags
  • Latest breach threatens 100 homes
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(CNN) -- Muskrat holes weakened a Mississippi River levee on Friday, allowing floodwaters to pour into Lincoln County, Missouri, just north of St. Louis, officials said.

Water pours through the levee break Friday in Lincoln County. Officials said muskrat holes weakened the levee.

Water rushes into a field from a broken levee Friday in Lincoln County, Missouri, north of St. Louis

Sheriff's deputies alerted residents to evacuate, yelling "get out, the levee broke" as they went door-to-door in the affected areas, according to an Associated Press report.

Winfield resident Debbie Halcomb, 52, heard warning sirens and knew that her worst fears were realized, the AP reported.

"I was hoping it would hold, but it didn't," the AP quoted Halcomb as saying. "I think we probably lost it on this last bunch of rain."

Though overnight rains were reported in the area, officials said at a Friday morning news conference that muskrats looking for food or making dens had dug into the earthen levee, weakening it enough that nature took care of the rest.

"Until this morning, we felt our progress was successful and would hold the water back," said Andy Binder, public information officer for Lincoln County. "However, Mother Nature's priorities were apparently different." Video Watch how rodents opened the levee to floodwaters »

The river had been forecast to crest at 37� feet Saturday. The levee broke about 5:30 a.m. Friday.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blamed the structural collapse on pockets dug in the levee walls by muskrats.

These pockets had led to "down slides" that had occurred in two 100-foot-sections of the levee over the past several days. Down slides happen when portions of the earthen levee shift because of water seepage.

The Corps said that the Mississippi, having exceeded the original levee, was being held back by sandbags placed by volunteers and the National Guard.

Travis Tutka of the Army Corps of Engineers said there had been an inspection of the walls about 4 a.m.

"At that time, there was a significant amount of water, but it was running clear, so we thought we had the situation under control," Tutka said.

"We were notified about the breach by the National Guard at 5:03 a.m., and were told that the water flow had started to push the sandbags off of the top of the levee."

The levee was the last one remaining in Lincoln County and was protecting about 100 homes. Almost 700 homes in the area have been damaged by floodwater.

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The levee breach poses problems for Lincoln County, but areas farther downstream such as St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Memphis, Tennessee, may see lower water levels in the near future, according to CNN meteorologist Reynolds Wolf.

President Bush declared 22 Missouri counties to be disaster areas Wednesday. The declaration makes federal funding available to state and local governments for disaster-related damages.

Copyright 2008 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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