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Amid Flood Worries Come Raw Sewage Threats

Midwest: Treatment plants pour millions of gallons into the Mississippi. Vaccines in short supply.

April 21, 2001|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — All along the flooded Mississippi River on Friday, tetanus vaccines were becoming worth their minimal weight in gold as swamped treatment plants poured millions of gallons of raw sewage into the river while thousands of volunteers sloshed around in the unhealthful waters.

A national shortage of the vaccine had Red Cross officials in this town telling sandbaggers, firefighters and others likely to get wet to check with their family doctors--to see whether they had a few vials hidden away. Across the river in Davenport, Iowa, the Scott County Health Department had fewer than 200 doses--and officials were not using them prophylactically.

"Sorry," a county nurse said to one injection-seeker. "Come back if you get a puncture wound, though."

During past floods, health officials had set up vaccination stations right where levee-builders were toiling in the brackish waters. They were trying to prevent the disease, commonly known as lockjaw, before it got started.

But two of the three companies that were manufacturing the vaccine in the United States halted production earlier this year, health officials said. Supplies in many parts of the country are low.

An inoculation is good for about 10 years, and health workers here were hoping Friday that many of the volunteers in galoshes and gloves had been immunized during the floods of 1993 or 1997.

Cities in Minnesota and Wisconsin have been pouring raw sewage into the river system for several days now. Late Thursday, Davenport joined in, dumping about 20 million gallons a day directly into the Mississippi.

The only major city on the upper portion of the river without a permanent levee system, Davenport was the center of bad flood news Friday. Forecasters moved up by a day the river's expected cresting in the Quad Cities--Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side, Rock Island and Moline in Illinois--saying it should now peak Tuesday.

Reaching a level of nearly 20 feet by late Friday, the river had another 2 1/2 feet to go before it was expected to top out just a fraction of an inch below the devastating record of 22.63 feet in '93.

Public works director Dee Bruemmer was not giving up hope that the crest might fall just short of the worst-case scenario and spare the city the millions of dollars in damage it endured in 1993.

"The critical point is 22 feet," Bruemmer said. "If we're under that, we'll be just fine."

"Fine" was a relative term Friday, as the city's main thoroughfare was almost completely submerged, the Rhythm City Casino was closed and 14 pumps were going full-speed in an effort to keep the John O'Donnell baseball stadium from going under.

A night game at the stadium, home to the Quad City River Bandits, typically offers one of the best views of the river for miles--with the Mississippi flowing through an east-west bend and the Centennial Bridge arcing south to Illinois. On Friday, the park was completely surrounded by feces-tainted water.

The water levels in numerous Iowa and Illinois cities Friday had reached the high side of projections. Forecasters also said that the flooding likely would recede a bit more slowly than expected.

To top off the unhappy news, meteorologists announced that a series of thunderstorms likely would roll through overnight, preceding by a day even more rain that is expected upstream in Minnesota.

In Prairie du Chien, Wis., residents sandbagged at maximum speed Friday as the river neared its crest of 24 feet.

Jamie Foxx, wrestling a hose carrying water from his already flooded basement, summed up the feelings of many flood-weary residents all along the river.

"Every day's a battle," he said.

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