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Storms swell rivers, threaten homes

In Illinois, residents keep a wary eye on rising waters. Drier weather is forecast.

August 26, 2007|Megan Twohey and Carolyn Starks | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — For days, storm-swollen waters have kept Richard Dubois fighting to protect his bungalow along the Fox River. Piling sandbags by day -- enough to turn his and other houses on West Riverside Drive into mini-fortresses against the relentlessly rising Fox -- and then falling into bed exhausted, only to wake repeatedly.

Up at 11 p.m. to fuel the makeshift collection of generators and pumps that act as a final barrier to the river. Another check at 12:30 a.m. and another at 3 a.m. Then up at 7 a.m. to start the sandbagging anew.

"It's like I can't be tired," said Dubois, 47, who runs a paving company. "This is my house, everything I own. I have close to 3,000 sandbags around my house; I'll add 2,000 more if I have to. I'm going to save my house."

West Riverside Drive, a two-block-long peninsula of homes, is but one of dozens of neighborhoods across the Midwest struggling to cope with the effects of a late August drenching that has gone on for the better part of a week.

As residents inspected soaked basements and inundated backyards, it appeared Saturday that the worst of the flooding may have passed. Water lines were slowly receding in Des Plaines, Ill., and forecasts for several area rivers predicted a steady decline in water levels, according to the National Weather Service.

The Chicago area should experience drier, cooler weather until Tuesday, said Casey Sullivan, a weather service meteorologist.

The storms in northern Illinois were part of a powerful system moving through the Upper Midwest for the last week -- stretching from Minnesta to Ohio. The storms have caused extensive damage and are blamed for at least 18 deaths. In addition to an estimated 100,000 without power in Illinios on Saturday, another 100,000 were without power in southern Michigan. Also hard-hit have been Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Like residents of Illinois, they are hoping for a break in coming days.

"Waters have receded in several places," said Des Plaines Police Sgt. Dan Niemann. Unless there was more rain or water coming from the north, Niemann said, roads should open in a day or two. "We're hoping by late Monday or Tuesday we can get things back to normal."

In DeKalb, which experienced some of the worst flooding when the Kishwaukee River peaked at 15.24 feet on Friday, the water had dropped two feet by Saturday. It was expected to continue to go down, according to the weather service. But damage to homes in the area was extensive, and 69 people were staying in a Red Cross shelter Saturday night, according to Lauren Zimmerman, the agency's director of emergency services.

In Dubois' neighborhood, residents measured the water level on a white yardstick nailed to a wooden post in what until a few days ago had been Dubois' broad backyard. The water had been rising 4 inches a day or more all week, and by Saturday morning it measured 2 feet deep. Fortunately for Dubois, the wall of sandbags protecting his house had climbed to 3 feet by then and appeared to be holding.

The best news in days came shortly after noon, when Dubois' brother, Rob, waded out to the measuring post. Instead of rising, the water had dropped one-quarter of an inch since morning.

He rushed back to tell a group of residents and volunteers taking a lunch break on a dry patch of high ground, and suddenly days of anxiety and gloom gave way to smiles and laughter.

Jeff Peterson, Dubois' friend who had helped with the sandbagging brigade for several days, finished his burger, walked up to the water's edge and proclaimed, "We won."

Things were also looking up along the Des Plaines River, where homeowners on Big Bend Drive spent Saturday inspecting damage and looking for signs that water had begun to recede.

Despite a foot of standing water in many places in the neighborhood, Saturday's sunshine had begun to lure people outside. Children rode bikes through the water, a woman in flip-flops splashed along as she carried bags of groceries home, and Victor Kamka, a retired police officer, watched it all while seated in a green lawn chair at the end of his drive.

"We've got no power," Kamka said. "If we didn't have generators, we wouldn't be here. The generators are keeping the water out."

Back along the Fox River, Saturday's turning point had come just in time. When Dubois rose at dawn to survey the water and the latest damage it had caused, he discovered that sometime overnight his back deck had come unhinged.

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