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The river claims another victory

June 15, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS JUNCTION, IOWA — The National Guard reinforcements were sent elsewhere and, on Saturday morning, the mayor tearfully delivered the news: There was no hope of holding back the flood.

But residents in this town of nearly 2,000 on the Iowa River couldn't give up. Their bodies streaked with dirt and sweat, scores of them lined the edges of their man-made levee -- a wall of stone and sand and mud, nearly 12 feet high in places, and all that stood between them and destruction.

They flung sandbag after sandbag onto the ground, trying to block the trickles of water that were seeping through the barrier.

Suddenly, in late afternoon, the trickle turned into a torrent. Beneath their feet, the dirt road was still dry, but far from solid. It rippled with each step, like a water bed.

"Get out!" yelled Linda Pierce, 46, a landscaper who has lived in this southeastern corner of the state for nearly a quarter-century. "The ground's giving way!"

For the last week, they'd labored through rain, lightning storms and threats of tornadoes, clinging to the hope that they could keep the water out.

They knew it would come here, harder and stronger than in most other stretches in the Hawkeye State, where floodwaters have already inundated the two largest cities.

It always hits hard here. About half a mile away, the Cedar River joins the Iowa, and the waterway is now a roiling rage of twisted tree trunks and muddy water the color of coffee.

Tens of thousands of people across Iowa have been evacuated from their homes in recent days as the state has been hit by the worst flooding in at least 15 years. The devastation was so thorough that in Palo (pop. 900), roof peaks and treetops poked out of the water, and in Cedar Rapids, the state's second-largest city, an area of about 1,300 blocks was reported flooded.

But the people of tiny Columbus Junction had beaten back the floodwaters in 1993, when neighbors helped each other and rivals set aside their gripes to fight the rising tide.

They believed they could win the battle once again -- not to conquer nature, but to nudge it aside.

On Saturday, they reluctantly pulled the plug on saving their downtown district, grabbed what provisions they could and fled to their homes on higher ground.

"It's devastating," said Marvin Prior, 65, who recently retired from the Columbus Junction State Bank.

A week of 12-hour days filling sandbags has taken its toll: Prior's back and arms are so cramped and fatigued he gasps in pain when he bends over to tie his work boots.

"I don't want to give up. I want to keep fighting," Prior said. "But how can anyone fight something this big?"

The townspeople started in earnest last Sunday, building up the railroad line and securing the bridge that spanned the Iowa River, just downriver of the confluence.

Most residents of the town, nearly 40% Latino, have ties to agriculture or manufacturing in nearby communities; most consider this a family-oriented community where everyone turns out to cheer the Columbus High School Wildcats football team. Workers at the Tyson meatpacking plant skipped shifts to shovel sand, and pile up plastic bags of topsoil and peat around the entrance of the local senior community center and Sammy's Ten-Pin bowling alley.

"We all want the same thing," said Antonio Sosa, 44, owner of the New York Dollar Store grocery. "To save our businesses. To save our homes. To fight the water and save our town."

Even amid their exhaustion, they tried to lighten the mood. Near the Hy-Vee pharmacy parking lot, someone used sandbags to prop up a pair of hand-scrawled wooden signs. One read "Lake CJ." The other: "No swimming unless a lifeguard on duty."

Working alongside residents was a crew of National Guardsmen, sent in to help.

The barricade against the water grew. By Tuesday night, the sandbags atop the levees reached 6 feet high. A couple days later, the height had doubled.

But the water moved faster.

By Saturday morning, under brilliant blue skies that belied the misery on the ground, water was pouring into the town's water plant and swirling across part of its wastewater treatment system.

City officials cut off the town's water supply. The power, at least in the four-block-long town center, was expected to follow.

The Louisa County emergency planning coordinator couldn't be there to help flip the switch: He had been rushed to the closest hospital, more than 35 miles away, after complaining of chest pains that morning.

Residents frantically began to hoard supplies. Dozens of people rushed through Sosa's store, snapping up cans of vegetables and bags of tortillas, anything that did not require cooking. Sodas went quickly, too.

In the back, Sosa's mother and daughter filled a dozen plastic trash cans with water, then reached for any container that would hold liquid. Picnic coolers. Empty milk cartons.

A few blocks away, slumped over a wooden conference table at City Hall, Mayor Dan Wilson shared a few grim updates with other local officials.

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