June 24, 2008

Water Still Rising in Winfield

By Tim Bryant, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jun. 24--WINFIELD -- Sandbagging at the squishy Pin Oak levee was the latest stand Monday in the struggle to keep the flooding Mississippi River at bay.

A muskrat burrow led to a levee leak the size of a fire hydrant's flow, authorities said.

Throughout eastern Lincoln County, the river continued to rise, trying the will of residents and emergency workers who had expected the Mississippi to start receding by now. New forecasts called for the river to remain near record levels until Wednesday, then begin to drop slowly.

A levee at Sandy Creek breached on Monday, leaving many homes on the west side of Foley with about a foot of water inside, Lincoln County officials said.

Kelly Hardcastle, head of the county's emergency services, praised the resilience of workers and volunteers who have been fighting the flood longer than anticipated.

"We had to kick it back into gear and keep it going," he said.

At the saturated Pin Oak levee, which protects 1,000 acres of farmland and dozens of homes in a part of Winfield, engineers discovered water pouring out of a muskrat hole on the inland side of the levee.

Muskrats had burrowed deep into the levee and the floodwater's pressure apparently completed the perforation, said Travis Tutka, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers dam safety section in St. Louis.

National Guard members worked six hours to fix the leak by putting a large plastic sheet on the river side of the levee. The water pushed the sheet into the hole and plugged it, saving that section of levee at least temporarily. "It literally looked like turning off a faucet," Tutka said.

Elsewhere along the levee, sand boils turned up with alarming frequency. Sand boils happen when water forced through or under a levee bubbles up on the dry side. Unchecked, they can lead to levee failure. National Guard members contained them with rings of sandbags.

Much of the work to stack 2 feet of sandbags on top of the levee was done by human chains because officials deemed the levee too unstable to bear the weight of moving trucks and other heavy vehicles.

Officials asked for volunteers to come to Winfield High School to fill sandbags. More than 75 people showed up by late Monday afternoon.

Among the volunteers was Sgt. Justin Albers, a member of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Albers, 24, of St. Louis County, said he wanted to fight the flood even though he has only a 30-day leave from Iraq.

"I just came down to see whatever I could do to help," said Albers, adding that he will be on duty in Afghanistan after his leave expires. "I figured most people would do the same."

North of Winfield, firefighters rounded up, without incident, numerous propane tanks that had floated away from a storage lot along Highway 79.

High water covered the highway in several spots, including the middle of Foley, which is north of Winfield. Water already had encircled the couple of dozen homes east of the highway. On Monday, it crossed the highway and entered Vonna's Party Cove bar.

Terry Meyer, who owns the building, said he adapted the structure after the record flood of 1993. The building's furnace is now in the attic, the bar is made of rot-resistant lumber and the electrical outlets are 4 feet off the floor.

"But once (the floodwater) is gone, you still have to go in there and tear the drywall out," said Meyer as he stood at the flood's edge about 200 yards from the bar's front door.

In St. Charles, National Guard members and about 200 volunteers rushed to fill and pile sandbags Monday after spotting small breaches in the Elm Point levee. Fire Capt. Dan Casey said there was no imminent threat but that more volunteers were needed.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich joined officials in Alton to sign legislation that will allow an earlier start to planned repairs and modernization of the levees that protect the American Bottom floodplain that stretches from Alton to Columbia.

The law allows Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties to spend money on levee improvements and be reimbursed later by county flood prevention districts. The districts can enact a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for the work but won't collect any revenue before next spring.

Corps of Engineers spokesman Alan Dooley said the flood situation had changed little in Grafton, where several homes and businesses and sections of Illinois Route 100 are flooded, or in Alton, where several downtown businesses have water in basements.

Terry Hillig, Joel Currier and Leah Thorsen of the Post-Dispatch provided information for this report.


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