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Archive for Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Keeping the floods at bay

Mississippi River levee breaks in Illinois

Bryan Schulte keeps watch over a sandbag levee holding back floodwaters from the Mississippi River on Tuesday in Burlington, Iowa. On the Illinois side of the river across from Burlington, a levee broke Tuesday morning south of Gulfport, Ill., forcing the closure of a bridge that connects the two cities.

Bryan Schulte keeps watch over a sandbag levee holding back floodwaters from the Mississippi River on Tuesday in Burlington, Iowa. On the Illinois side of the river across from Burlington, a levee broke Tuesday morning south of Gulfport, Ill., forcing the closure of a bridge that connects the two cities.

June 18, 2008

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— It was like attending a wake for an old friend. For hours Tuesday, Lois Russell sat in her light blue Buick Lucerne on a tiny county road, watching brown floodwaters slowly swallow the white farmhouse she called home for 57 years.

"What else am I going to do?" the 83-year-old said. "Where else am I going to go?"

The floodwaters that have forced thousands of people in the Midwest from their homes in recent days claimed a piece of the tiny western Illinois town of Gulfport when the rising Mississippi River broke through a levee Tuesday.

It was the third time the river spilled into the house where Russell and her husband raised seven children. In 1965 they yanked out everything down to the carpet before the flood hit, then cleaned up and started over.

Not this time.

"They all told me it's too old to take up this time," she said. "There's nothing in there that's really important. My family's here. We're all OK."

On Saturday, she had packed up her belongings and left with her two cats for her daughter's home in Terre Haute, Ill.

"I said if it ever flooded again, I wasn't moving back," she said through tears.

The levee breached as floodwaters moved south from Iowa into Illinois and Missouri.

The break forced authorities to rescue about a half-dozen people by helicopter, boat and all-terrain vehicle. The details of the rescues were unclear because of discrepancies in the numbers of people involved and the circumstances described by state and local officials.

On Tuesday, the flooding halted car travel over two bridges linking Illinois and Iowa and threatened to cover areas near Gulfport with 10 feet of water.

Preliminary estimates were that the flooding has caused more than $1.5 billion in damage in Iowa, and that figure will undoubtedly rise as the high water moves downstream.

Still, officials said the cost would have been even higher if the federal government had not purchased low-lying land after historic floods in 1993 caused $12 billion in damage.

Since then, the government bought out more than 9,000 homeowners, turning much of the land into parks and undeveloped areas that can be allowed to flood with less risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has moved or flood-proofed about 30,000 properties.

On Tuesday, flooding remained far more serious in parts of southeast Iowa, where the Mississippi River had yet to crest.

People were urged to evacuate an area near Gulfport as floodwaters threatened about 12 square miles of farmland. Henderson County Deputy Sheriff Donald Seitz said a major highway could be under 10 feet of water by midday today.

On the Iowa side of the river, a sandbagging operation was moved south to the outskirts of Burlington after floodwaters streamed across state Highway 99.

Oakville Apostolic Church "is now an island," said Carly Wagenbach, who was taking food to levee workers.

The National Weather Service expects crests this week along some Mississippi River communities near St. Louis to come close to those of 1993. The river at Canton, Mo., could reach 27.7 feet on Thursday, just shy of the 27.88 mark of 1993 and more than 13 feet above flood stage.

Crests at Quincy, Ill., are expected to climb to about 15 feet above flood stage, narrowly short of the high water from 15 years ago. In Hannibal, Mo., the river is projected to crest at 31.8 feet, matching the 1993 record.

In St. Louis, the Mississippi is projected to crest Saturday at 39.8 feet, about 10 feet above flood stage but still a foot lower than in 1993.

Google Map

2008 Midwest Floods


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Blue pins indicate areas that have already been flooded. The red line shows where levees are in danger of being overtopped.

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