Rising Mississippi River disrupts bridge travel

Rising Mississippi River disrupts bridge travel

By MARIA S. FISHER Associated Press Writer GULFPORT, Ill. (AP) — 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 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 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. 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. ——— 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. Published in The Messenger 6.18.08

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