Unrelenting Midwest rains have killed 22, dislocated hundreds
By Deborah Horan
Copyright 2007 Chicago Tribune Company
CHICAGO — Canoes and high-riding shuttle buses were used to rescue stranded residents across the Midwest on Wednesday as heavy rains generated by a potent combination of scorching temperatures and high humidity forced rivers over their banks, flooding homes and businesses, and saturating farmland in several states, authorities said.
At least 22 people have died in the floods, caused by two storm systems that have spanned the Midwest, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri in recent days, including a man found Tuesday lodged in a tree near Lewiston, Minn., The Associated Press reported. Authorities were bracing for more floods by Friday as storms were expected to dump another 2 to 3 inches of rain across states that have already experienced higher-than-normal precipitation.
Aerial views showed miles of fields and roads under water in Ohio. The state's worst flooding in nearly 100 years closed streets and schools and forced at least 500 people to evacuate.
With only a few rescue boats available, neighbors in the northwest Ohio town of Findlay set out in their own kayaks and canoes in waist-deep streets to ferry others to safety.
The deluge forced prison authorities to move about 130 inmates at the county jail in Findlay to a regional prison, authorities said. Gov. Ted Strickland declared states of emergency in nine counties.
Elsewhere across the region, the flooding has affected more than 4,000 homes in Minnesota and caused an estimated $38 million in damage in Wisconsin, where Gov. Jim Doyle declared a state of emergency in five counties.
Wisconsin was hard hit near the Fox River, which peaked at 14.8 feet — 10 feet is flood level — before receding about an inch by Wednesday afternoon, according to Sgt. Gil Benn, a spokesman at the Kenosha County Sheriff's Department.
Benn said officials were bracing for another burst of rainfall by Friday.
"If that happens, all bets are off, and we could end up with a big problem," Benn said.
With 6.44 inches already this month at O'Hare International Airport, Chicago has experienced its wettest August since 1990, when 7.25 inches drenched the city, according to WGN-Ch. 9 meteorologist Tom Skilling.
"There's no break in this until Friday, and my suspicion is that we will get [more rain] after the weekend," Skilling said. "We have new storms on the way."
Skilling said extreme heat in southern Illinois and parts of the South that mixed with high humidity and moist soil had caused rainfall of two to three times the normal August levels in many parts of Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota. Illinois is on the periphery of a hot-air dome that creates huge amounts of moisture in the air, he said.
"It wouldn't take much to create a more serious flooding situation than we have right now," Skilling said.
Wisconsin's rainwater, he said, was heading south.
"Eventually all of this high water will make its way down to Illinois," Benn said. "Anyone who lives near the Fox River should have an [emergency] plan in effect."
Emergencies have already cropped up in several areas of Lake County. Roads were closed near the Mill Creek tributary, county officials said. The Fox Waterway Agency closed the upper and lower river to boaters and issued a "no-wake" order for the Chain o' Lakes, according to the agency's Web site.
In Avon Township, highway workers spent Tuesday night and Wednesday morning ferrying residents in high-riding shuttles to and from a subdivision near Linden Lane that had been isolated by water, said Pat Anderson, the township's highway commissioner. On Wednesday afternoon workers dumped gravel on the lane to raise the road level so residents could drive home.
"It's just a Band-Aid for right now, but it should accommodate them for a few days," Anderson said.
Some of the worst flooding in Illinois occurred along Russell Road in Newport Township near the Wisconsin border, where Jim Brooks stared Wednesday at the swamp that surrounded his new house. Half the backyard shed had disappeared beneath the water. He couldn't reach the front door of his house without a plank.
Worst of all, he had just closed on the purchase of his house Monday.
"What did I get myself into?" he said with a stunned look. "There's a foot of water in the basement."
In southwestern Wisconsin, Richard de Wilde estimated he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars this week when a foot of rain inundated his organic beef and vegetable farm near Viroqua.
"Out of our 100 acres of vegetables, we had easily 30 under water," said de Wilde, one of the state's largest organic farmers. "If that was all a loss, it's $300,000. I'm thinking we're going to be able to salvage some out of there, but certainly it's more than $200,000 just counting crops."
The damage from this week's floods could push some organic farmers out of business and affect the price of organic products nationwide. Only California has more certified organic farms than Wisconsin. Organic farms in southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa were affected by the rain as well.