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Flooding comes early along MS river

Local responders build on last year's flood experience to prepare for new flooding

BY STEPHANIE BACKUS | QUINCY, IL | March 15, 2009

Flooding is a normal sign of spring for many communities along the Mississippi River, but this year, flooding has come earlier than normal.

"This would be a normal year, except for two factors," said John Simon, director of the Agency of Adams County (Ill.) Emergency Management. "One: Two levies that were breached last year have not been completely restored, and two: everybody, including myself, is just a little bit gun shy and thinking, 'here we go again.'"

"Over the last couple of days, the contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers has stepped up efforts and mobilized equipment to put sand in the holes so the lvy can handle a 25 foot river heighth," Simon said.

Flooding is also a regular occurance in northern Indiana, according to Alan Welch, with Disaster Assistance for Northwest Indiana (DANI).

"The flooding right now is actually later than what we had last year. Last year we had flooding in January and again in February. Now we're in March," Welch said. "Right now the flood level is someplace between what we had last January and February. It might be a little early to tell what issues will come out of that."

Simon said the county is preparing for flooding again this spring and learned a lot from last year's major floods.

"There were thousands upon thousands of volunteers who flocked to Quincy and Adam's County that came from all over to help sandbag and with issues on the levy," he said. "I have no doubt in my mind that would occur once again (this year)."

According to Welch, DANI has already heard from clients they had from last year's floods that water had re-entered their homes.

"We have one family who took FEMA money and had some insurance money, but it wasn't enough to do everything," he said. "They came to us and said 'we tried to do it all but we couldn't' so we had authorized some help for them. They called this morning and said they had a foot and a half of water in their house."

The Rev. Bob Morwell, of Union United Methodist Church, volunteered extensively during the 2008 floods.

"Quincy did an excellent job of setting up a location to focus sand bagging efforts. What happened was essentially a 'if you build it, he will come' situation," Morwell said. "People came from a 100 mile radius. I remember a group of Mormon youth were meeting in St. Louis and they drove up and started digging. The Mennonite and Amish came out. We had every church in the community contributing volunteers."

In fact, Morwell said he knew of several groups that traveled long distances to help protect communities along the river.

"I was digging away (in the sand) one day and there was a woman working next to me. I asked her where she was from and she said Alaska," he said. "She said they were from the area originally and visitng relatives and decided they had to help. They spent part of their family vacation digging sand and filling sand bags. I understand from the mayor of Quincy that we filled 1.3 million sandbags in 10 days. It was a wonderful spirit.

"People came from New Orleans and said 'you folks helped us in our time of need' so they came to sandbag as a way of saying thank you."

Most of Quincy, Ill. is located on a bluff, but the community was sending sandbags to three different states to help communities along the river.

"There was a willingness to band together very quickly. Every organization you would think of as being coordinators stepped in quickly, but frankly, city and state authorities also stepped up quickly and were extremely well organized. I think they were sobered a bit by the incompetent response to Katrina and decided they weren't going to let that happen (in Illinois)," Morwell said.

Morwell said he was very impressed by how people were able to channel their talents and work where they were needed.

"I think that's evidenced by the fact that the flood stopped. Quincy was the first place the levies held. We were able to keep the flooding that had affected Cedar Rapids contained," he said.

Morwell said the spirit of the town shined during the 2008 efforts.

"Everyone can readily have a role to play to help their neighbors," he said. "I saw little kids down there digging in the sand and filling bags. If you can't dig, you can cook. If you can't cook, you can contribute in other ways. I think that's something people need in their lives -- a sense of purpose, of usefulness in times of disaster."

According to Welch, this year, people are being proactive during floods.

"I talked to the (American) Red Cross and they said they had more people in the shelter this year than last year. We talked about it and realized that people are being more proactive in taking care of themselves this time around. The community as a whole is aware of flooding and as the water began to come up, people were quicker to evacuate on their own."

Morwell said spiritual care is also important when disasters are striking.

"For those whose businesses or homes or farmland were devastated, you offer support to say 'well yes, this is a blow and we have to make changes, but life can go on and can be even better for the experiences,'" he said. "To offer comfort, support, material assistance if we can is important. A lot of churches in the wake of flooding brought in equipment and crews to help with cleanup and to tell people that there's nothing that happens that we can't overcome together and find strength, if we choose."

Simon said the faith-based organizations in the community are well organized for times of disaster.

"We have a seat in the Emergency Operation Center for our local VOAD. They in turn, reach out and coordinate the organization of the faith-based groups and non-profits. That whole group's entire focus is on the human needs element. It's not on law enforcement; it's not on firefighters or public works. It's all about dealing with the people," Simon said.

According to Simon, the VOAD came together in 1995, after the '93 flood.

"They are very fruitful and proved invaluable last year, as we were able to reach out and coordinate an approach to any organization that exists through one network or another."

Morwell said it was amazing to see how well people came together to protect towns that had been engulfed by flood waters before.

"A little further down the road (from Quincy) there's a little town that was inundated -- Hall. (In 1993) they were completely under water. The town was in danger of being overwhelmed again this time. People came from Quincy and all around to help save it," Morwell said. "The National Guard was there, along with other groups including prisoners from the county jail. I was working side-by-side with them and it was pretty amazing. You would think they wouldn't be all that motivated, but they were polite, worked hard and did a tremendous job."

Morwell said there were so many sandbags filled, the endloaders could not keep up with the people.

"People were out there 12 hours a day doing this. Probably if they had the operation going 24 hours, people would have been out there continually. It's the feeling of being part of something miraculous and wonderful. We wanted it to succeed and it did," he said.


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