Northern Illinois tries to hold off flooding; FEMA chief sees damage in Minn., Wis.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

PROSPECT HEIGHTS, Ill. -- More rain pushed flood waters higher in northern Illinois on Friday, threatening further havoc in a region where days of torrential thunderstorms have swamped thousands of homes and left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity.

In this Chicago suburb, about 300 people piled sandbags against 4-foot-high concrete barriers, aided by backhoes and bulldozers, but they didn't know whether it would be enough to hold back the rising Des Plaines River.

"It's just getting worse," fire chief Don Gould said. "All these people will be flooded out if we don't move quick."

A storm carrying heavy rain and high winds Thursday knocked down thousands of trees and tree limbs around metropolitan Chicago and left more than half a million utility customers without power. About 173,000 remained without electricity Friday night, said ComEd spokeswoman Anne Prammaggiore.

Nearly a week of powerful storms, heavy rain and devastating flooding across the Upper Midwest has damaged thousands of homes and been blamed for at least 17 deaths.

Fifty-five miles west of Chicago in DeKalb, the Kishwaukee River reached near-record levels, spilling over its 15-foot levees, flooding neighborhoods and making bridges impassable.

About 600 residents of DeKalb and nearby Sycamore have been displaced, said DeKalb city manager Mark Biernacki. Northern Illinois University's flooded DeKalb campus was closed.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich declared Cook, Lake, Kane, DuPage and McHenry counties state disaster areas, a move that will help deliver state aid to those areas.

In lower Michigan, a line of heavy storms swept through for the second day in a row, spawning tornadoes that destroyed or damaged several homes. No injuries were reported Friday.

The storm wave also left a trail of high water and power failures across northern Indiana.

Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator R. David Paulison surveyed damage Friday in Rushford, Minn., which was especially hard hit by flooding this week. Paulison also visited Wisconsin, where flooding destroyed 44 homes and damaged more than 1,400, most of them in the southwestern part of the state.

In Missouri, the Weather Service issued flood warnings for several communities along the Mississippi River, expecting levels 4 to 5 feet above flood stage because of the earlier storms upstream. That's not enough to endanger levees but could threaten homes in river bottoms.

In Ottumwa, Iowa, heavy rain backed up the sewer system, threatening the water supply to the city of about 25,000. Residents were asked Friday to use tap water as little as possible; the city set up water distribution centers and portable toilets around town.

The latest rains have already made this the wettest month ever in Rockford, Ill., 80 miles northwest of Chicago, with nearly 14 inches in August. Chicago itself has endured its fifth-wettest August with 9.12 inches, the most since 2001, with a full week left to go in the month.

Ironically, Blagojevich cut more than $1 million worth of flood-control money out of the state budget before signing it into law Thursday. The cuts included $100,000 earmarked for a new levee in Prospect Heights, which Mayor Rodney Pace called "a kick in the shorts."

"There are a lot of people who are really upset," Pace said. "They're all out here sandbagging."

The governor didn't want to talk about cuts in the budget at an appearance Friday afternoon in northern Illinois. He said there have been increases for issues like flooding but didn't elaborate.

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