With town under evacuation, volunteers fill sandbags in Elwood as river crests

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ELWOOD, Kan. -- Across the river from St. Joseph, the small town of Elwood is under evacuation.

On Friday, volunteers filled hundreds of sandbags, waiting for the water to recede. Officials said the Missouri River at Elwood crested Friday afternoon, and it's just a matter of time before the water goes down.

"Anything we can do to protect life and property, at that point, we're going to do," said Rick Howell, spokesman for Doniphan County Emergency Management.

Airmen from the 139th Airlift stationed at the Rosecrans Airport were just part of the volunteers who came out to strengthen the levee against the rushing Missouri River.

"I've had to turn people away to be honest with you," 139th Airlift Vice Commander and Wathena Mayor Col. John Cluck said. "We've had so many people want to come here and serve."

"It's hard. It's a little frightening, but we also know that it's water. We're going to be OK," volunteer Sarah Caraway said.

Water levels at Elwood crested at 32 feet, very close to the levels from the flood of 1993.

Officials said this time around the levee is strong enough to keep the water at bay. But the town of Elwood remained under evacuation while they waited for the water to go down.

"We had several families who evacuated yesterday, but the town is basically empty. But again, these are residents that have lived with this river for many, many years," Howell said. "They know what to expect. They've been extremely cooperative, which makes our job a lot easier."

"It's a bag of sand, but it's much larger than that because it's the people it represents," Caraway said. "It's these homes that are sitting here vulnerable, but more than that it's the people who they belong to."

If the levee were to break, or water pushed through sandbags, firefighters from Johnson County were on hand to start emergency water rescues. Departments from KCK, Shawnee and Olathe were ready, along with a crew from Manhattan, Kansas.

"It's great for our task force because that's what we've been trained to do," KCK firefighter Brian Jayne said. "So it's nice to come and be able to utilize what we've been trained to do and to help out a community in Kansas. That's awesome for us."

While the land remained dry Friday, officials said floodwaters weren't something they wanted to test. They'd rather be prepared than react when it's too late.

"Have faith in us. I'm awful proud to be a member of the 139th and a member of this local community," Cluck said. "We're not going to give up, and we're going to get through it together."

"We are still out here working together until the last minute, and I love the spirit of these folks working and trying until there's no more that we could possibly do," Caraway said.

Elwood and Wathena officials scheduled community meetings Friday night to help ease concerns of residents and keep them informed. The first is set for 6:30 p.m. in Wathena at Riverside High School and the second at 7:15 p.m. at St. Joseph's Restoration Church.

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