Coast Guard rescues people trapped on Coon Island, Mo.

Friday, March 21, 2008
By Donna Farley
Daily American Republic

COON ISLAND, Mo. — Neelyville second-grader Dakota Hall got a unique view of Butler County flooding Thursday afternoon — from the air after a Coast Guard helicopter rescued him, his mother and his 18 month old brother from high ground at Coon Island General Baptist Church.
After a sudden surge of water surrounded the Coon Island area around 1 p.m. U.S. Coast Guard and Missouri Air National Guard helicopters immediately began airlifting citizens to dry ground.
"The roads are covered with water," 9-year-old Hall said, standing at the Poplar Bluff Municipal Airport with other Coon Island residents Thursday afternoon. "It was nice, but you can't get anywhere. There's too much water."
Hall's mother, Eba Prince, 28, said she barely had time to get a few clothes together before rushing her children to the church from their Highway H home.
"The water was up to the foundation of our house," Hall said, who is taking the children to her mother-in-law's Poplar Bluff, Mo., home. "I just brought what my children could take. All I have is my coat and what I have on."
Though the Coon Island flooding has been blamed on a levee break, the Butler County Emergency Management Agency believes the new influx of water may have been caused by Cane Creek overflowing its banks, according to EMA Director Rick Sliger.
Another levee break was reported south of Poplar Bluff on the Black River near County Road 608, but authorities have also been unable to confirm this.
"We know we have had levee failures. But from the air, we haven't been able to see (all) these breaks," Sliger said. "This may just be from the rush of water from other breaks. There is so much water everywhere, it's hard to tell where the water is coming from."
The EMA has been concentrating on rescue efforts this week. By Tuesday, Sliger hopes to begin damage assessments.
With 15 miles of visibility, it appeared from the air Thursday morning as if a sea of water is flowing continuously across the southern portion of Butler County. Only the roofs of houses were visible in several places in south Poplar Bluff.
Jet skis were running near Highway W at Hilliard, north of Poplar Bluff, and motorboats trolled through four to five feet of water in rice fields along Highway 53, east of Poplar Bluff.
Between Wednesday morning and 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Coast Guard helicopters had airlifted 37 people and six dogs from flooded portions of Butler County to safety. The Missouri Air Guard arrived late Thursday afternoon and pulled eight people from the Coon Island area before dark.
Coast Guard rescue swimmer Calob Flippin retrieved a family of six in the Poplar Bluff area yesterday from a location where the team's helicopter couldn't land because of trees and power lines.
"I haul people out of bad situations," Flippin said. "There was a family, two grandparents, an infant, a toddler and the parents. The water was in their front yard and the road was washed out."
Getting the family out was tricky, he said, because rescues involving the elderly and children are always more difficult. First the grandmother was sent up, then the mother and infant rode up in a basket. The mother then handed the infant out of the basket and into the helicopter to the grandmother.
"The toddler went up last with me," Flippin said. "The children were very excited to get out of there. The toddler was all smiles."
Rescuing people in Butler County has posed new challenges for the three Coast Guard crews sent here from Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans.
"It's definitely different than on the coast. People here don't recognize us as coming to save them," said Flippin. "They think the helicopter is there looking at them and go back in their houses. It's to the point where they might send us down to knock on doors."
When 45-year-old Shela Merchant left her home of one year in the Coon Island area, floodwaters hadn't reached the foundation. Less than two hours after she was airlifted by the Coast Guard to Poplar Bluff, she received reports water was up to the roof.
"I got a phone call saying they were evacuating people," said Merchant, who will be staying with family. "I don't have anything with me but my dog and my purse."
By 6:30 p.m. Thursday, crews reported they had retrieved all of the Coon Island residents who wanted to leave. They planned to continue flying over flooded areas during the night, checking for people in trouble.
"A lot of people don't want to leave during the day, but at night, it gets dark and it gets colder, people do panic a little more," Flippin said.