Mississippi levee breaks; flood damage mounts
By MARIA SUDEKUM FISHER
The Associated Press
GULFPORT, Ill. — The rising Mississippi River interrupted travel on two bridges between Iowa and Illinois and threatened thousands of acres of farmland Tuesday. People stacked millions of sandbags near 27 levees the federal government said were in danger of overflowing.
The Mississippi River overflows its banks Tuesday, in Burlington, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
The river blew a massive hole in a levee near the farming community of Gulfport at about 5 a.m., covering at least 5,000 acres of farmland by late Tuesday morning, Henderson County Chief Deputy Donald Seitz said.
"The whole town will be under water," Seitz said, calling the levee break "very devastating" for the small agricultural community near the Illinois-Iowa line. More than 10,000 acres could eventually flood, he said.
The break forced the closure of the Great River Bridge that connects Gulfport to Burlington, Iowa, via U.S. Highway 34. Two people who were working on the levee were rescued by boat, said Henderson County Sheriff Mark Lumbeck.
Three other people were lifted by helicopter from a rooftop, and seven others climbed onto a 4-wheeler and sped down a railroad track as the levee gave way, Lumbeck said.
The town of about 200 remains dry but was evacuated because of concerns about a second levee to the north where seepage was discovered, Lumbeck said. Two residents in the town refused to leave and stayed behind, the sheriff said.
The Illinois governor's office originally reported more than a dozen people had to be rescued by helicopter. But Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, later said the number could not be confirmed and to rely on local officials' accounts.
About 20 miles down the river from Gulfport, the BNSF Railway Co. swing span bridge was closed early Tuesday to car traffic at Fort Madison, Iowa, near the Iowa-Illinois line, Lee County emergency management director Steve Cirinna said. The bridge hadn't closed to trains, BNSF Railway Co. spokesman Steve Forsberg said.
Near the Gulfport, 83-year-old Lois Russell watched the floodwaters that surrounded her home about a mile away. She said she evacuated her home because of flooding in 1965 and again in 1993, and returned each time — but that she wouldn't return again.
"It was a good placed to raise my seven kids," she said, crying. "I know I haven't lost anything that feels important because I have a big family."
The federal government predicted that 27 levees could potentially overflow along the river if the weather forecast is on the mark and a massive sandbagging effort fails to raise the level of the levees, according to a map obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
Officials placed millions of sandbags on top of the levees in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri to prevent overflowing. There was no way to predict whether these levees will break, said Ron Fournier, a spokesman with the Army Corps of Engineers in Iowa.
Amtrak service was disrupted between Burlington and St. Paul, Minn., because of the flooding. The disruptions affected the California Zephyr, Southwest Chief and Amtrak Empire Builder routes.
A sandbagging operation at the Oakville Apostolic Church was moved south to the outskirts of Burlington after floodwaters streamed across Iowa Highway 99.
"The church is now an island," said Carly Wagenbach, who was shuttling food to levee workers.
Officials were concerned about spots in a levee that protects a drainage area south of Oakville.
"It's outrageous," said Steve Poggemiller. "We're hanging on by a thread — or a sandbag."
Jeff Campbell, a farmer carrying sandbags on his 4-wheeler, said he spotted hogs swimming away from a flooded hog operation near Oakville. They were climbing a levee, poking holes in the plastic that covered it, he said.
One tired pig was lying at the bottom of the levee "like a pink sandbag," Campbell said.
Donna Dubberke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Davenport, Iowa, said the river level would gradually begin to rise again once the flooded areas fill up, but that crest projections could be lowered by several inches.
At Burlington, the crest forecast was lowered to 25.8 feet, down from the earlier projection of 26.1 feet. That was welcome news to volunteers fighting to save a levee north of Burlington.
"Nobody knows how close it was," said Brian Wiegand, 48, of Oakville. "It was by a whisker."
Two more deaths were reported Monday in Iowa, bringing the state's death toll to five.
On Tuesday, there were signs that much of Iowa was starting to return to normalcy: Interstate 80 reopened near Iowa City for the first time in days, with Interstate 380 to the north scheduled to reopen early Tuesday. On the University of Iowa campus, officials began to take stock of the damage.
In Cedar Rapids, where 24,000 people were evacuated when floodwater covered about 1,300 city blocks, more people were being allowed to return to their homes Tuesday.
"The water has continued to recede, so we've moved those barricades in and there's now a large section of the city where residents are allowed to go back in," said Dave Koch, a city spokesman.
On Monday, broken gas lines, sink holes and structural problems caused officials to stop taking residents into homes, said Dave Koch, a city spokesman. Officials hoped to allow residents in soon.
Where floodwaters remained, they were a noxious brew of sewage, farm chemicals and fuel.
LeRoy Lippert, chairman of emergency management and homeland security in nearby Des Moines County, warned people to avoid drinking floodwaters. Mixed in are pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer from Iowa's vast stretches of farmland.
The American Red Cross said Monday its disaster relief fund has been completely spent, and the agency is borrowing money to help flood victims throughout the Midwest.
Remembering Katrina: A La. emergency responder offers thoughts on Midwest flooding
Emergency responders in the Gulf states know firsthand the devastation of broken levees and widespread flooding. Homeland1 talked to Allison Handley, PIO at Louisiana Security & Emergency Preparedness to get her thoughts on the situation of emergency responders on the ground in the Midwest.
Apples and oranges
"But as a state that's been through it, we can relate,” said Handley. "Especially evacuation concerns – you want to get everyone out of harm’s way and save as many lives as possible."
Much of Louisiana's population did not have their own means of transportation, which caused a lot of the failures in the evacuation process.
"It's apples and oranges," she said.
The Department of Health and Hospitals is the Louisiana agency responsible for dealing with health issues during and after floods.
"During Katrina, all that information was distributed through that agency," Handley said.
Their Web site publishes information for the public on what they need to do before reentering and what to do if you do come in contact with flood waters, etc.
Louisiana agencies discovered their shortcomings the hard way.
"We had a great deal of communications challenges here in Louisiana, which we’ve updated and improved to date," Handley said.
Since the disaster, the entire state has signed on to interoperable system — a statewide repeater network maintained by the Louisiana State Police — so in the event something were to happen causing conventional communications to go down, emergency and first responders would still be able to talk to each other.
By integrating the system into all state agencies, any emergency and first responder will be able to connect. By the end of 2008, phase three will begin, which will extend the network to outlying regions.
The immediate concern, Hadley said, is making sure SE Louisiana’s at-risk parishes have this communication capability.
No doubt about it, Hadley said: The emergency workers and responders in the Midwest are stressed and tired.