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River breaks through Ill. levee; more danger ahead
GULFPORT, Ill. -- The rising Mississippi River broke through a levee Tuesday, forcing authorities to rescue about a half-dozen people by helicopter, boat and four-wheeler as floodwaters moved south into Illinois and Missouri.
But even as the water jeopardized scores of additional homes and businesses, officials said the damage could have been worse if the federal government had not taken steps to clear flood-prone land after historic floods in 1993.
On Tuesday, the flooding halted car travel over two bridges linking Illinois and Iowa and threatened to cover areas near tiny Gulfport with 10 feet of water.
"I'm not going back after this one," 83-year-old Lois Russell said as she watched water surround her house near Gulfport. It was the third time she had fled her home because of flooding since 1965.
"It was a good place to raise my seven kids," she said, crying. "I know I haven't lost anything that feels important because I have a big family."
The area was inundated after a levee broke near Gulfport. The details of the rescues were unclear because of discrepancies in the numbers of people involved and the circumstances described by state and local officials. But authorities agreed that boats, helicopters and an all-terrain vehicle were involved in the efforts.
Preliminary estimates were that the flooding has caused more than $1.5 billion in damage in Iowa, and that figure will undoubtedly rise as the high water moves downstream.
Still, officials said the cost would have been even higher if the federal government had not purchased low-lying land after the 1993 deluge, which caused $12 billion in damage.
Since then, the government bought out more than 9,000 homeowners, turning much of the land into parks and undeveloped areas that can be allowed to flood with less risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has moved or floodproofed about 30,000 properties.
The effort required whole communities to be moved, such as Rhineland, Mo., and Valmeyer, Ill.
In Iowa, FEMA spent $1.6 million to buy out residents of Elkport, population 80, and then knock down the village's remaining buildings. Some residents moved to Garber, Elkport's twin city across the Turkey River, but others abandoned the area.
"There's nothing there in Elkport anymore," said Helen Jennings of Garber. "They built new houses in different places."
Some of those who stayed are paying a price.
The federal government bought about a quarter of the homes in Chelsea, Iowa, after the 1993 floods, but most of the 300 residents stayed. At least 10 homes are now inundated by the Iowa River to their first floors.
Residents take it in stride, said Mayor Roger Ochs.
"For the most part, it's another flood," he said. "For Chelsea, it's more of an inconvenience."
On Tuesday, flooding remained far more serious in parts of southeast Iowa, where the Mississippi River had yet to crest.
People were urged to evacuate an area near Gulfport as floodwaters threatened about 12 square miles of farmland. Henderson County Deputy Sheriff Donald Seitz said a major highway could be under 10 feet of water by midday Wednesday.
On the Iowa side of the river, a sandbagging operation was moved south to the outskirts of Burlington after floodwaters streamed across state Highway 99.
Oakville Apostolic Church "is now an island," said Carly Wagenbach, who was taking food to levee workers.
Officials were also concerned about the integrity of a levee that protects a drainage area south of Oakville.
"It's outrageous," said Steve Poggemiller. "We're hanging on by a thread -- or a sandbag."
Jeff Campbell, a farmer carrying sandbags on his four-wheeler, said he spotted pigs swimming away from a flooded hog farm near Oakville. They were climbing a levee, poking holes in the plastic that covered it, he said.
One tired pig was lying at the bottom of the levee "like a pink sandbag," Campbell said.
Reports of raw sewage and farm runoff in floodwaters raised concerns about public health. But experts said most people are smart enough to avoid the tainted water. "Typically we don't see the outbreaks of diseases that people fear," said Mike Allred of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The rising water forced the closure of the Mississippi bridge in Burlington and stopped car traffic on the bridge in Fort Madison. The bridge's railroad tracks remained open. A bridge downriver in Keokuk also remained open.
To the north in Cedar Rapids, floodwaters had dropped enough that officials let hundreds of people return to their damaged homes and businesses.
"It's obviously much more shocking when you walk in the door for the first time and see what happened," said Amy Wyss, watching sullenly as a giant blower was used to dry out her upscale wine bar, Zins. "I don't think you can be prepared for this, even if you think you are."
The National Weather Service expects crests this week along some Mississippi River communities near St. Louis to come close to those of 1993. The river at Canton, Mo., could reach 27.5 feet on Thursday, just shy of the 27.88 mark of 1993 and more than 13 feet above flood stage.
Crests at Quincy, Ill., and Hannibal, Mo., are expected to climb to about 15 feet above flood stage, still narrowly short of the high water from 15 years ago.
In St. Louis, the Mississippi is projected to crest Saturday at 39.8 feet, about 10 feet above flood stage but still a foot lower than in 1993.
Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed in Burlington, Iowa, Jim Suhr in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Amy Lorentzen in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
On the Net:
U.S. Geological Survey's 1993 flood page, http://mo.water.usgs.gov/Reports/1993-Flood