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COLUMN ONE : Way of Life Vanishes as Water Ebbs : In July, little Niota, Ill., was swallowed by the Mississippi. Now, the river has retreated and residents face what's left behind, water-soaked ruins and lots of mud. Mostly, there are questions--stay or go?

September 09, 1993|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NIOTA, Ill. — It took four days for the shredder to devour Niota.

The 10-foot-tall chopping machine, leased by the state and equipped with a new set of knives, had been trucked a discreet distance from the town's main streets. Thousands of tons of soaked, maggot-ridden debris were waiting.

Into the hopper dropped Ted and Michelle Reinhardt's bedroom set, Marge Young's blue bicycle, the antique dresser that once belonged to Josephine Waterman's grandmother. In slid the 1962 Roger Maris baseball card that Donald Lucas had been saving.

In went children's collections of unicorn and pig figurines; in went snow shovels, mattresses and American flags.

Bit by bit, in fell the entire pale gray house where Rick and Mary Rea lived for a quarter-century and more.

Back out the chute streamed everything reduced to small chunks, the easier to haul to a landfill across the Mississippi--the same river that flowed over a levee July 10 and took the town, as it claimed so many others this year.

After standing for a month in all but two of Niota's 90 houses, the Mississippi has retreated significantly. Now, the full extent of the damage is apparent. What 7-year-old Bailie Siemens calls "our old life" is over. And, as all through the flood zones of the Upper Midwest, the new life has not yet taken shape.

Though volunteers have arrived from Pennsylvania, Kentucky and elsewhere to labor alongside the townsfolk, some big questions must be answered before cleanup can proceed much further.

Some say it's best to move, either all together to a nearby ridge or, more realistically, scattered among upland communities. Others say they'll stay and comply with requirements to raise their houses several feet. They will trudge up several dozen steps to the front door, if that's what it takes.

Most wonder if they should do anything at all just yet, since they don't know if, or when, their levee will be repaired. They've heard talk of more floodwater this fall and next spring.

On just one point can everyone agree. They say they really can't afford any of the options, even with government aid.

The talk is the same in the dry garage to the north that now serves as Pontoosuc City Hall and in the community center up in Henderson County where the displaced of Shokokon can drop in for food and supplies. The discussion is repeated at each stop the big shredder makes, in Andalusia near the Quad Cities, in Keithsburg, in Hull south of Quincy. Scores of hamlets in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas are also deciding their fates.

"You hear about the vanishing American farm," said Carol Hogan, who owned a Niota antique shop. "On the river, it's going to be the vanishing American small town."

The big decision to be made here, as elsewhere, is this: Would it be harder to rebuild or to let go?

This century-old, working-class village of 160 people was never particularly quaint nor picturesque. But most of the simple structures of Niota were tidy, the gardens well-tended. And, though there are a few people who don't get along with others, it is a true community.

Until the Mississippi came to town, many residents lived within sight of the homes in which they were born. They felt secure leaving for the day without locking their doors. Young and old, men and women turned out to bolster the levee all spring and summer as the water rose. During the flood, they put cat food and water on the roofs for stranded pets.

Work camp prisoners who helped with sandbagging in July thought the place was special, too. They still sing as they keep at the task downriver: "They say down in Niota/The people are mighty fine/They feed me twice a day/And now they're friends of mine." The townspeople are trying to get the state's permission to host the inmates again, this time for a formal day of thanks.

Such an event would have to be held in the Appanoose Faith Presbyterian Church, untouched on the high ground east of Niota. Since the land in town reappeared a few weeks ago, most of the buildings have been gutted by their owners, who are living elsewhere.

The warped hardwood floors stand up on end while molds of many colors flower on the walls. An oil slick left greasy stripes on the exteriors near the top of first-floor windows.

Outdoors, the greenery is gone. Drying mud furrowed by truck tire tracks has replaced the lawns. The needles of spruces and the leaves of apple trees and hard maples have withered.

While people debate the petroleum-stripping merits of Mr. Clean versus Capt. Shine, they conduct a running internal dialogue.

"I just can't do this alone," said Joan Boddeker, a widow who has lived 42 of her 63 years in a white house on the main drag, Highway 96. She will go.

Minutes later, she asked herself aloud: "Then why am I bleaching the walls?" She will stay.

There are so many competing voices with so many compelling arguments.

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