Mississippi overtakes Illinois levee

June 18, 2008 4:56:16 AM PDT
Another rain-swollen levee failed today along the Mississippi River, triggering a dramatic helicopter rescue near Gulfport, Ill. More then a dozen people, who were sandbagging the levy just as it broke, had to be rescued, and scores more were evacuated nearby, including one man who clung to the roof of his car as the water rose around him, the Associated Press reported.

The breech threatened to swamp the small town of Gulfport and forced the closure of a bridge over the river, cutting off the town from Burlington, Iowa.

Henderson County Deputy Sheriff Donald Seitz said the highway leading to the bridge could be under 10 feet of water within 15 to 20 hours. And still, the great Mississippi has not crested.

Officials fear that more than two dozen more levees downstream are at risk.

There is no way to predict whether these levees will break, Ron Fournier, a spokesman with the Army Corps of Engineers in Iowa, told the AP.

According to the "Significant River Flood Outlook" graphic released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, most of eastern Iowa, most of western Illinois and parts of northeastern Missouri are areas where flooding is "occurring or imminent."

Buffalo, Iowa resident Cindy Mendez knew that flooding in her town was imminent and decided to fight the best she could by working for two days to barricade her mother's home against the floodwaters. But as Mendez learned, like the workers in Gulfport, sometimes the best effort is not enough.

"Finally we said we got to let it go. We can't keep fighting," Mendez said while trudging through her mother's house up to her knees in muddy water. "We gave up. Mother Nature wins."

Upstream, more residents in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines are returning to their homes as waters recede. Interstate 80 near Iowa City was reopened today.

For those communities that have been overcome by the flooding, the loss or damage of property is taking a backseat to a larger danger: contamination.

'As Dangerous as Anything'

"It's my property. I own it!" yelled Cedar Rapids, Iowa, resident Rick Blazek as authorities kept him and dozens of other residents from returning to their flood-ravaged homes. "Why can't I go in and inspect it?"

According to the Associated Press, minutes later Blazek, 54, decided he was going home no matter what official restrictions were in place. After attempting to drive around a checkpoint and allegedly bumping into an officer in the process, Blazek found himself looking through his windshield and down the barrel of a police officer's handgun. Soon after Blazek was pulled from his car and arrested for assaulting an officer.

The strictly enforced restrictions are in place to keep residents away from floodwaters that could be hazardous due to electrical and structural concerns in the weakened homes, as well as contamination.

"People should take precautions about being in floodwaters," warned Regenia Bailey, District C Mayor of Iowa City, Iowa. "It's very important."

In Oakville, Iowa, Bob Lanz was taken aback by the noxious spread of sewage as he navigated an aluminum flatboat through the remains of downtown. "You can hardly stand it. It's strong," Lanz told the AP.

As floodwaters overtook paint stores, gas stations and countless other sources of toxic contaminants, the rush of water became a harmful cocktail of refuse.

According to an AP report, Leroy Lippert, chairman of emergency management and homeland security in Des Moines County, Iowa, gave a dire warning:

"If you drink this water and live, tell me about it. You have no idea. It is very, very wise to stay out of it. It's as dangerous as anything."

At latest count the flooding along the Iowa and Mississippi Rivers had invaded more than six states, caused the deaths of at least 22 people and brought the danger of disease to thousands of people.

"We don't typically see mass cases of disease or illness coming from floodwater," Ken Sharp, the environmental health director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, told the AP. "But under any circumstance like this, we want people to avoid it because we don't know what's in there."

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