Helicopter saves sandbaggers from Midwest flooding
By MARIA SUDEKUM FISHER
Associated Press Writer
GULFPORT, Ill. (AP) -- The rising Mississippi River interrupted travel on two bridges between Iowa and Illinois and forced the helicopter rescue of more than a dozen people sandbagging a levee before it broke, threatening to deluge thousands of acres.
The break also forced the closure of the Great River Bridge that connects Gulfport to Burlington, Iowa, via U.S. Highway 34.
Illinois conservation officers and a helicopter from Iowa rescued those stranded at the levee, as well as motorists stuck on U.S. 34 and at a house in nearby Carman, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office said.
Henderson County Deputy Sheriff Donald Seitz said the highway could be under 10 feet of water within 15 to 20 hours and that the crest wasn't predicted to hit the area until Tuesday evening.
"Now we're looking at thousands of acres that are going to be underwater, the small village of Gulfport is going to be underwater," Seitz told CNN.
Near the village, 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."
Authorities saved several people, including a motorist rescued from on top of his car, after the levee break near Gulfport.
People were urged to evacuate the area, Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokesman Chris McCloud said. Floodwaters threatened about 7,500 acres in Illinois, Seitz said.
About 20 miles down the river, 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.
About 30 people were working to raise the railroad tracks above floodwaters, but BNSF Railway Co. spokesman Steve Forsberg said the bridge hadn't closed to trains.
The federal government predicts 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 is 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 affects 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 spot 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.
The levee breaks on the Illinois side caused a quick but small drop in the river level and the projected crest level at Burlington was lowered as floodwaters spilled over into farmland and small villages.
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.
Frustrations spilled over at one checkpoint, where a man was arrested at gunpoint after he tried to drive past police in his pickup truck.
In Des Moines, where a levee failure Saturday sent water pouring into the Birdland neighborhood, some residents returned for the first time to see the damage.
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.
Ken Sharp, environmental health director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said that the floodwaters could make people sick. But he said the sheer volume of water can dilute hazardous substances.
The flooding also raised concerns of contamination in rural wells, said G. Richard Olds, professor and chairman of the Medical College of Wisconsin.
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.
Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed in Oakville, Iowa, Jim Suhr in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Jim Salter in Iowa City, Iowa; Amy Lorentzen, Henry C. Jackson, David Pitt and James Beltran in Des Moines, Iowa; and Eileen Sullivan in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)