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Tired Folks Await Crest of the River

Nature: Along the upper Mississippi, residents keep a wary eye on levees and the still-rising stream.

April 22, 2001|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAVENPORT, Iowa — It should be a pretty easy gig, patrolling the riverfront here in a small fireboat on a sunny spring day. But the riverfront has changed dramatically.

On Saturday, Davenport firefighter Bob Juarez guided the battered skiff under an emergency walkway--"Whoa, watch that"--over the railroad tracks, between the parking meters and past the statue of jazz great Bix Beiderbecke, all the while keeping his eye out for submerged fire hydrants and other hazards.

As the flooding Mississippi River continued to rise and 25 mph winds whipped up whitecaps, firefighter Nate Wilson kept watch from the bow, looking for anyone looting the half-submerged businesses, for weak spots in the sandbag levees, for floating deer carcasses.

"Right over there," Wilson said over the gurgle of the outboard, "in that little pool, that's where we found the deer."

With the Mississippi at more than 5 feet above flood stage and rising in the Quad Cities--Moline and Rock Island in Illinois, Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa--firefighters patrolled the new, uncharted waterways, police patrolled the cordoned-off streets, and the governors of both states toured flooded areas to begin assessing the damage.

After flying by helicopter over several swamped areas, Illinois Gov. George Ryan announced he would try to buy out homeowners living in the river's flood plain. After the record flood of 1993, the state purchased 3,000 homes on the condition that homeowners move to higher ground.

The river upstream in East Dubuque, Ill., had risen to 25.95 feet by late Saturday, approaching the record, set in 1965, of 26.81 feet and surpassing the 1993 level. After enduring three massive floods in less than a decade, one city councilman was ready to take the governor up on his offer.

"If they offer me the money it's worth, I'm gone," Steve High said.

During a tour of Camanche, Iowa, Gov. Tom Vilsack said that about 1,000 homes in his state have been damaged by the flooding and that 300 families have been driven from their homes. Vilsack is planning to formally ask for federal disaster aid Tuesday.

Residents in Keithsburg, Ill., got a scare when the river suddenly dropped, suggesting a levee had broken. Instead, the Mississippi had topped another levee on the Iowa side, flooding only farmland.

All day long, however, local television stations broadcast pleas for help across the bottom of the screen: "Sandbaggers are urgently needed in Port Byron, with levees requiring immediate repair . . . ."

From the Davenport fireboat--loaded with emergency medical gear, life vests and sunscreen--the scene was that of a city in waiting.

The filling of sandbags and the building of dikes had largely come to a halt, with residents and officials exhausted physically and mentally, and figuring they had done what could be done. Davenport is the only major city on the upper river with no permanent flood-control system, which makes for lovely river views but nervous flood seasons.

The crest is expected to arrive Tuesday at 22 1/2 feet, less than a fingertip shy of the record, set in 1993, of 22.63 feet.

Wilson, a 22-year-old fire department rookie who grew up in these parts, radioed in about two weak spots in the plastic-shrouded dirt berm that surrounds John O'Donnell Stadium. The plastic had come off and the water was less than a foot from the top of the soil.

"That could be trouble," said Juarez, 36, a 10-year veteran.

Farther upstream, a hose 10 inches in diameter carried water out of a building's basement and back up over the levee, pumping out perhaps hundreds of gallons per minute.

As the two firefighters motored back under the walkway and tied up, the echo of police officers with bullhorns could be heard above the slap of the water.

With the river heavily contaminated--Davenport alone was sending 60 million gallons of raw sewage a day into the stream by Saturday--police had become far stricter in shooing away the curious.

"I'm going to get a hundred complaints for yelling through this bullhorn," said one officer, who asked not to be identified. "But I haven't given any tickets yet. I let them have a quick look.

"I wish they'd just stay back, though, because I want to go out in the fire department boat."

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