HANNIBAL, Mo. -- From a tree-lined bluff high above the Mississippi River, the floodwaters look serene, a gift from God in this deeply religious region, where locals still greet visitors with "sir" and "ma'am."
But from a levee a short drop away, it's clear the fast-running, 29-foot-high current would crush trains, buildings and Steve Terry's 120-foot Mark Twain Riverboat as if they were children's toys.
Terry, the 48-year-old owner of the popular tourist attraction and a U.S. Coast Guard-certified captain, saw steady 3% to 5% annual sales growth — until the flood struck earlier this month.
Terry's riverboat and several barges have been anchored in the middle of the river for almost two weeks. He's losing thousands of dollars a day in profits, and he had to let go students who work for him in the summer. The local boy isn't worried, though. "The mighty Mississippi River is a little mightier now, but we'll survive," Terry says. "Hannibal is open for business."
The flooding in the Midwest has killed 24 people, caused billions of dollars in damage and devastated hundreds of farms and businesses. But the rising waters have done relatively little harm to Hannibal, a folksy town of 18,000 where 19th-century author Mark Twain spent much of his childhood.
An earthen levee and concrete floodwall have held back the waters from Hannibal's historic downtown district. Only two businesses — the riverboat company and Bubba's, a popular jambalaya restaurant right on the riverbank — have temporarily closed.
Hannibal, though, is struggling to survive the financial impact from the disaster. News media reports of surging waters have spooked tourists, who've canceled nearly half of the town's 800 hotel reservations.
On a typical summer day, downtown Hannibal is full of visitors and locals enjoying the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, arts and music festivals, the Mark Twain cave and other attractions. Each year, nearly a half-million tourists flock to Hannibal, trademarked as America's Hometown.
Nearly empty streets
On Tuesday, however, the streets were nearly empty. Shopkeepers stared forlornly out the window at each passerby. A popular trolley — usually full of people — rolled by with only a few onboard.
It could have been much worse. If the flood had surged through downtown, many businesses might not have survived, says Beau Hicks, tourism director of the Hannibal Convention & Visitors Bureau.
To protect downtown, business owners taxed themselves in the early 1990s to raise several million dollars to strengthen the levee. A few months after the improvements were done, the "Great Flood of 1993" struck. The new wall, built to hold back a flood of 34 feet, withstood 29 feet of rising water.
"The levee has saved this town from catastrophe — twice," says Hicks, who also is a weekend TV anchorman at WGEM in Quincy, Ill.
Beyond the flooding, there's more cause for optimism in Hannibal. After years of slow economic growth, the loss of manufacturing plants and a weathered image as an old river town, Hannibal is on the cusp of a business renaissance.
Local corporations — including longtime cement maker Continental Cement and chemical manufacturer BASF — have recently announced hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments and plant expansions in Hannibal.
A Wal-Mart Supercenter and a new Lowe's home-improvement store, opening later this year, will anchor a growing retail complex. Nearby highways, medical facilities and the local airport are being expanded, linking Hannibal to several big cities in the Midwest. Newcomers from around the country are moving to affordable Hannibal to retire or start small businesses.
"All of the pieces are coming together," says Terry Sampson, executive director of the Hannibal Area Chamber of Commerce. "There's a good feeling in town now."
Next week, city and business officials launch a marketing campaign with the slogan "Hannibal Has It! Shop, Dine, Play and Stay."
They're using an arsenal of public financing tools — enterprise zones, historic preservation programs, transportation development districts — to give tax breaks to businesses and to rebuild the 100-year-old infrastructure. Industrial development bonds raised $135 million for the expansion of a big General Mills plant.
Plus, they're joining forces with other small towns to boost the regional economy.
"We're a 'micropolitan,' along with a lot of smaller communities of 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 people in northeast Missouri," says Jeff LaGarce, Hannibal's city manager. "We draw a lot from other communities in this region for our retail trade, our industrial base and our workforce."
For the downtown historic district, business owners and the city have poured $15 million in recent years into improvements, including renovation of the old Mark Twain Hotel and new lofts and studios for artists.
New theater, remodeled ball field coming
A $4 million, brick-lined movie theater will rise next year built by B&B Theatres, and a historic baseball field will be remodeled into a state-of-the-art facility for a new Hannibal baseball team.
The revitalized Mark Twain museum — run by Regina Faden, a Mark Twain scholar — offers new interactive exhibits for children and an exhibit of local African-American culture.
The economic offensive and image makeover seem to be working. Tourism, which fell to 200,000 annual visitors a few years ago, rose to 400,000 last year, including travelers from China and Japan.
Even as thunderstorms passed over Missouri earlier this week, Hannibal officials remained optimistic. The flooding is weakening. And high gas prices should lead more local travelers to visit Hannibal — especially July Fourth weekend for the frog-jumping contest and other events during National Tom Sawyer Days, the summer's big draw.
At Becky's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor & Emporium, co-owners Frank and Sara North have survived the floods, and they've seen their business ebb and flow.
"This town and this business will always be profitable — we'll make a decent living," says Frank North, grinning. "We don't have plans to buy a condo and move to the Bahamas anytime soon."