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IL ice jam threatens homes

BY KRISTINA KNIGHT | Cleveland, IL | March 2, 2001

At least 150 residents were evacuated this week from Cleveland, Barstow, and Osborn, IL as waters from the ice-jammed Rock River flooded the three small towns.

The Quad-Cities of Rock Island, Moline, Davenport, and Bettendorf, along the northeastern Iowa-Illinois border, were threatened by a six-mile ice jam in the Rock River and flooding in Moline and Joslin, IL.

Ice-jam flooding is harder to predict than snowmelt flooding, according Jeff Zogg, service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Davenport IA, but both can be destructive. An ice jam works by melting enough ice to jam a river, buckling pieces of ice one on another, restricting the flow of water, and causing it to overrun the banks.

"Ice jam flooding is related to when the weather warms up. Anytime you have a decent warm-up of temperatures, say to above freezing or higher," said Zogg, "you run the risk of having ice jams. Most ice jams will occur after January."

For meteorologists, the challenge is keeping abreast of current weather trends and staying in touch with local law enforcement and the Corps of Engineers. This way, weather professionals can provide a little warning to residents in a dangerous situation. Sometimes that lee time is as little as an hour, but in some cases, forecasters can give those in danger as much as a day to pack belongings and get ready to move.

Several factors come into effect in ice jamming.

First a cold snap early in the year leads to extensive and deep ice formations in the rivers.

Second, warming temperatures allow the ice to thin and break. Third, a shift of the ice downstream forms ice jams.

That is the case in the Quad Cities, where the Rock River continues to creep into flood stage at Moline and Joslin, IL.

"I was on the Rock River near Barstow the other day with firefighters and we saw the river rise a foot within 10 minutes, and then lower the same amount within 15 minutes," said Zogg.

The speed with which an ice jam can form and cause rivers to rise is a major concern. That is why Zogg suggests that residents in these flood-prone areas stay in close touch with National Weather Service forecasts and warnings.

"We are in close contact with local law enforcement and with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They tell us what is happening with the river levels and we release flood watches and warnings for affected areas."

Snow pack and ice covered rivers are causing concern through Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota as spring comes ever closer.

Minnesota residents are keeping a wary eye on the Minnesota River as snow keeps piling high. In 1997, the Minnesota River and its tributaries flooded, causing $7-million in damages.

Drought-weary Iowa farmers are watching closely as the basin areas of the Iowa, Cedar, and Des Moines rivers are packed tighter with snow and ice. Water content of more than four inches in the snow pack could cause major problems this spring.

For snowmelt, larger areas are prone to flooding from mid-March to mid-April. Snowmelt is induced by the melting of snow into the rivers, causing the rivers to fill beyond capacity and overflow, flooding surrounding areas.

"In eastern Iowa and western Illinois, our current outlook is calling for minor to moderate snowmelt flooding with major snowmelt flooding possible on the Mississippi River, itself."

Zogg says it has been several years since the region has seen widespread snow melt flooding. "The last time we called for snowmelt flooding of this magnitude was back in 1997," Zogg said. "This year (2001) has been wetter and snowier than in years past, causing the current problems."

The problem with snow pack and snowmelt flooding is the liquid equivalent in the snow. Because of the heavy snowfall this winter, many counties in Iowa and Illinois have the water equivalent of three to four inches in their snow pack. Depending on how quickly or slowly it melts, that liquid could cause major flooding.

And that is why local and national organizations are gearing up for a busy spring in the Midwest.

Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) has trained disaster response teams ready to jump into action as soon as the need in communities exceeds the local response.

Under normal circumstances, these organizations work in federally or state declared disaster situations. However, since the potential for disaster is already high, they are already in place in several towns throughout the Mid-West. "We are prepared to go into any situations by going through Lutheran Social Services," said Gil Furst of LDR. "The dynamics for most disasters are the same: a period of chaos, and we plug in where ever necessary to try to provide some order in that chaos. Then there is a relief stage where we get ourselves organized, hire local staff and bring in volunteers. And finally a recovery stage, which is very long, where we get involved in putting the community back on its feet and moving forward."

In the beginning, Furst says the biggest donations come in the form on money and later time.

"We always start disaster response with zero dollars in the bank," Furst said, "Money donations are always helpful. But volunteers are also very helpful, especially volunteers with specific skills necessary to rebuilding."

And still the biggest benefit would come from Mother Nature, in the form of normal-to-dry spring so that the remaining snow pack and ice can melt slowly into the ground, instead of running off into rivers, causing flooding.

Officials say even though there is not as much snow this year as in 1997, there is still enough moisture to cause significant flooding if the snow pack melts quickly and March and April see heavier than normal rainfall.

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