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Water still rising as damage tops $1.5 billion

As the rising Mississippi River on Tuesday flooded thousands of acres of Iowa farmland, preliminary estimates put the damage at more than $1.5 billion, a figure that is expected to rise as the high water moves downstream.
Midwest Flooding
Members of the Missouri National Guard work with volunteers to fill sandbags along a rising Mississippi River on Tuesday in Canton, Mo. Officials there said flood preparations would end Tuesday in anticipation of Wednesday's predicted 27.5 foot crest. Jeff Roberson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the rising Mississippi River on Tuesday flooded thousands of acres of Iowa farmland, preliminary estimates put the damage at more than $1.5 billion, a figure that is expected to rise as the high water moves downstream.

Still, officials said the cost would have been even higher if the federal government had not purchased low-lying land after the 1993 deluge, which caused $12 billion in damage.

Since then, the government bought out more than 9,000 homeowners, turning much of the land into parks and undeveloped areas that can be allowed to flood with less risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has moved or flood-proofed about 30,000 properties.

The effort required whole communities to be moved, such as Rhineland, Mo., and Valmeyer, Ill.

In Iowa, FEMA spent $1.6 million to buy out residents of Elkport, population 80, and then knock down the village's remaining buildings. Some residents moved to Garber, Elkport's twin city across the Turkey River, but others abandoned the area.

“There's nothing there in Elkport anymore,” said Helen Jennings of Garber. “They built new houses in different places.”

Some of those who stayed are paying a price.

The federal government bought about a quarter of the homes in Chelsea, Iowa, after the 1993 floods, but most of the 300 residents stayed. At least 10 homes are now inundated by the Iowa River to their first floors.

Residents take it in stride, said Mayor Roger Ochs.

“For the most part, it’s another flood,” he said. “For Chelsea, it’s more of an inconvenience.”

Levee break threatens town
But inconvenience turned to frustration is some parts of Illinois Tuesday after one levee failed. Another 27 levees are in danger of overflowing, according to the federal government.

The river blew a massive hole in a levee near the farming community of Gulf Port 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 Gulf Port 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.

Rail service disruptedAmtrak service was disrupted between Burlington and St. Paul, Minn., because of the flooding. The disruption 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 spots in a levee that protects a drainage area south of Oakville.

"We're hanging on by a thread — or a sandbag," said resident Steve Poggemiller.

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.

Cars stopped at second bridge
About 20 miles down river from Burlington, the BNSF Railway Co. swing span bridge was closed early Tuesday to car traffic at Fort Madison, 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, and BNSF Railway Co. spokesman Steve Forsberg said the bridge hadn't closed to trains.

Car traffic moves on the bridge and trains travel on tracks below.

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.

In Washington, President Bush on Tuesday pledged housing help and other federal aid to victims of Midwest storms and said he would inspect flood damage in a trip to Iowa on Thursday.

Officials are placing 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.

Gov. Chet Culver and others pointed to the next looming trouble spot, in southeastern Iowa. Most requests for state aid were coming from Des Moines County, where the Mississippi River was expected to crest Tuesday evening at 26 feet in a mostly rural area near Burlington. Early Tuesday, the river was at 25.7 feet — more than 10 feet above flood stage — and still rising.

Crews were working to shore up a levee about 7 miles north of Burlington, where water covered about 2 blocks of the downtown area. Several businesses spent the night pumping water from basements, said Sgt. Chad Zahn of the Burlington Police Department.

Several thousand acres and about 250 homes would be flooded if the levee breaks, said Gina Hardin, the county's emergency management coordinator.

I-80 reopens
In much of Iowa, there were small signs of a 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, hazardous conditions forced officials on Monday to stop taking residents into homes where the water had receded. Broken gas lines, sink holes and structural problems with homes made conditions unsafe, 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.

"It's really bad. I mean, I can't believe this," said Gloria Ruiz, whose home suffered flood damage.

Ruiz pointed to a dirty line about 5 feet up on her basement wall showing how high the water rose. Her washer, dryer and boiler, and most of her children's toys, including a stereo and an Xbox video game system, were ruined.

Floodwaters lingered about 50 feet from her driveway.

"We don't know how long it will stay like that," she said.

Noxious brew of sewage, fuel
Where floodwaters remained, they were a noxious brew of sewage, farm chemicals and fuel. Bob Lanz used a 22-foot aluminum flatboat to navigate through downtown Oakville, where the water reeked of pig feces and diesel fuel.

"You can hardly stand it," Lanz said as he surveyed what remained of his family's hog farm. "It's strong."

LeRoy Lippert, chairman of emergency management and homeland security in nearby Des Moines County, warned people to avoid the floodwaters: "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."

Mixed into the floodwaters are pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer from Iowa's vast stretches of farmland.

Ken Sharp, environmental health director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, acknowledged 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.

"For rural folks, it's going to be hard to know if their water's safe or not," he said.

Two more deaths were reported Monday in Iowa, bringing the state's death toll to five.

Also Monday, the American Red Cross said its disaster relief fund has been completely spent, and the agency is borrowing money to help flood victims throughout the Midwest.

In the college town of Iowa City, damage appeared limited. Some 400 homes took on water Sunday, and 16 University of Iowa buildings sustained some flood damage over the weekend. But the town's levees were holding and the Iowa River was falling.