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Published: Friday, 4/27/2001

Mississippi's fury no dread to some

BY KELLY LECKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
In Buffalo, Iowa, Jeremy Albrecht, 15, and Jesse Driskell, 14, patrol the sandbag floodwall yesterday looking for leaks. Volunteers took 4 days to build the wall. In Buffalo, Iowa, Jeremy Albrecht, 15, and Jesse Driskell, 14, patrol the sandbag floodwall yesterday looking for leaks. Volunteers took 4 days to build the wall.
AP Enlarge

KEITHSBURG, Ill. - Mayor Sharon Reason and her husband moved everything out of their riverfront home last week and waited for the water to come.

Yesterday, the house was empty but dry. The Reasons had won this round in a 36-year battle with the Mississippi River.

Still, they wondered whether the town had already lost the war.

“It really hasn't been the same since the flood of 1965, and it was worse after '93,” Clarence Reason said. “But our hearts are here and that's why we're staying. Tell everyone you met some stubborn people here.”

In 1965, the Mississippi spilled from its banks into town, destroying homes, businesses, and people's livelihoods. A levee was built in the 1970's to protect Keithsburg.

Still, the floods of 1993 left 10 feet of water in the Reasons' Keithsburg Motel, right off the banks of the Mississippi. Eight feet of water was in the motel and the couple's home for the next week.

They weren't the only ones affected. Chest-high water filled the streets, homes, and businesses downtown. The printing shop next door was under water. So was the ice cream store.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, eager to prevent this damage again, bought 92 homes and 15 vacant lots to provide more green space and flood control efforts. Mrs. Reason said there wasn't money left to buy out damaged businesses.

So Mr. Reason rebuilt. The others didn't, and many moved out of town. The tourists who loved to see the river - and stayed at the Reasons' motel - stopped coming. The town that 30 years ago had a population of 3,000 had 714 residents this year.

Over the last week, flooding has caused millions of dollars in damage in Minnesota and chased people from their homes in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

In Keithsburg, residents helped the National Guard and dozens of prison inmates fill and place sandbags along the river. People took off work to walk the levee day and night, looking for leaks. The National Guard took over that duty last weekend.

Water did spill onto a road leading into town and leaked between sandbags into streets. But most of the area was spared from severe damage.

The river crested yesterday at 21.3 feet - six feet above flood stage - downriver in Burlington and four feet over flood stage at 20.1 feet in Keokuk. Those are the last river towns in Iowa; the high water is headed to Missouri today.

Volunteers rushed to set sandbags and straw along a dirt levee in Burlington to keep the levee from eroding. Most of the city was dry.

In southern Iowa, the river levels were far from the records set in 1993, when the river rose to 27.58 feet in Keokuk. But in the Quad Cities, this round of flooding fell short of the record by just three-tenths of an inch.

The focus was still on Davenport, Iowa, where a debate over the city's decision in 1984 to protect the river view by not building a flood wall has raged for a week. Davenport, population 98,300, is the only major city on the Mississippi without a flood wall.

The river receded very slightly in downtown Davenport, but water still invaded streets and businesses along the riverfront. Ducks swam down West River Road past a buried fire hydrant and a flooded out gas station.

Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, visited Davenport yesterday to assess the damage. He said earlier this week the city should build a flood wall and questioned whether taxpayers should pay for damage that was preventable.

Yesterday, he refused to address the issue at all. “There will be another time and place for a public discussion on the issue.”

Iowa has asked FEMA for a federal disaster declaration that would make money available to the state, as well as home and business owners. Illinois is expected to follow suit.

After surveying the damage, Mr. Allbaugh could not say whether the states would get financial help, but said he would report to President Bush.

“We're a river town, and we're a great river town. We know we have floods, and we expect to carry our own here. We're not looking for some handout,” Davenport Mayor Phil Yarrington said. “We're not looking for anything more than our fair share of money for damage and cleanup.”

The city estimated it spent $1 million just on protecting the city from the water by building and maintaining walls of sandbags.

The mayor called the flood war, which the city, National Guard, and volunteers have been fighting around the clock, a tie.

“We're never going to beat the river. Nobody's ever going to beat the river,” he said. “We might not have another flood of this size. Or it might come in 2002.”

Sierra Club activists shouted at FEMA Director Allbaugh as he met with Davenport officials. They are pushing for the restoration of wetlands to prevent flooding. Brett Hulsey from the Sierra Club's regional office in Madison said Iowa is third in the nation in wetland destruction behind Ohio.

Last night, residents along the Mississippi on the Iowa and Illinois border were praying it doesn't rain.



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