Crime falls as community spirit floods Midwest: Rupert Cornwell on how traditional values have come into their own

IF THE SCENE were not so depressing, it would be beautiful. A dozen or so miles north-west of St Louis, Missouri, Route 67 turns into a tarmac pontoon across a new and boundless sea.

It is barely 10am, but already the sun scorches down from a mocking, cloudless sky. The silence is disturbed only by the soft lapping of the water on the embankment that carries the road.

Beyond, the water glints brown and motionless. Its surface is broken by vestiges of a vanished world, the tops of electricity and telephone poles, green clumps of treetops that look like bushes, roofs of what once were houses, and businesses. After that, it is just water again, the stillness of the tomb, as far as the eye can see.

This is how the rich farmlands of St Charles County look today; in normal times, a 15-mile tongue of land bounded by the Mississippi and the Missouri before they converge just above the city. Such geographical niceties are now academic. Swollen by months of record rains in their upper midwestern basins, the rivers have become one. On Friday, fresh downpours threatened to raise river levels again. Experts say it may take months for the flood waters of the Mississippi and its tributaries to subside.

Fifty yards to the right of the road, a forlorn red and yellow hoarding is the only trace of Captain Jim's Bar and Grill. Whether the waters that have swamped that modest establishment belong to the Mississippi or the Missouri matters only to hydrologists.

All over the Midwest there are similar vistas and worse. From Minnesota and Iowa to Missouri and Illinois, a land area equal to one-third of England lies submerged as the rivers reclaim their natural kingdom. Almost 33,000 people have been forced from their low-lying homes, and four more people died on Friday, bringing the death toll to at least 41. Billions of dollars worth of crops have been lost, and along hundreds of miles of riverways the levees are still crumbling.

'God willing and if the creeks don't rise,' is a common proviso to any undertaking in these parts. Alas, the creeks continue to rise. At least 10 more days of storms and downpours are forecast.

One in five Americans, according to a poll this weekend, believes the visitation is divine punishment, 'God's judgement on the people of the United States for their sinful ways'. If this is true, the Almighty has been a mite unfair in his choice of sinners.

The Great Flood of 1993 has been a showcase for the unfashionable attributes of heartland America. This is a down-to-earth world of hard work and patience, of orderliness, decency and good neighbourliness.

In the hour of trial, everyone pitches in; the sense of community is tangible. An even better word would be Gemeinschaft. Not only German virtues but German stock lards the population. You can tell this from place names such as Wittenberg, Guttenberg, Hermann, and Germania Road, the last of which has seen the worse of the flooding in South St Louis itself; or names such as Anheuser-Busch, the brewing dynasty that pulls the real levers of power in the city.

Busch still sells plenty of Budweiser beer. But now, with 'boil orders' a familiar announcement for many a riverside community, and the ever-present risk of contaminated treatment plants, the company is distributing free cans of drinking water. A self evident PR gesture, yes; but also a sign of how great and small alike are helping out.

In other recent US disasters, such as the Los Angeles riots or Hurricane Andrew last year, looting and profiteering have been rife. Not here. The sandbagging stations will run out of sandbags before volunteers. Since St Louis's own flood crisis began in earnest this month, its crime rate has actually fallen.

Of course, even Midwestern resilience has its limits. The strain and exhaustion is showing everywhere. Take, for example, Sharon Ellis. She lives in the town of Arnold, just south of St Louis, where the Meramac river flows into the Mississippi.

Her home depends upon the strength of a 6ft levee of sandbags holding back the overspill of the Meramac. Almost in tears, she stares at the fetid, dark brown lake at her doorstep. 'I've been doing this for two weeks now. It never quits, it just goes on. I'm tired of waking up just seeing water. All I long for is dry land.'

Such relief may be months away yet, so grim is the weather outlook upstream. For Sharon Ellis and countless others, there is the certainty of more fearful, sleepless nights, more mosquitos, more levee breaks, more misery.

And when at last it's over, there is the clean-up - of swamped homes, factories, roads, parks and fields, not to mention more than 20 million bags of bone-heavy, sodden sand. Unless nature has permanently changed its course, it will be decades before so many are needed again.

The writer William Faulkner put it best. The Mississippi was like an old mule, he remarked of an earlier, lesser flood in 1927, 'doing what it likes to do, working for you 10 years for the privilege of kicking you once'.

(Photograph omitted)

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