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Rising MS river spurs flood emergency

BY SUSAN KIM | LA CROSSE, WI | April 17, 2001

"There are still thousands of homes at risk."

—Jeff Stein

The rising Mississippi River drove hundreds of residents from their homes Tuesday as riverside counties declared states of emergency and low-lying roads were inundated.

Nine counties in western Wisconsin declared a state of emergency Tuesday while 10 Iowa counties posted a disaster proclamation, according to local emergency response officials.

Flooding in Fountain City, WI forced closure of a riverside highway. In that area, Amtrak was forced to shut a rail route that takes passengers between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The river is due to crest early Wednesday at La Crosse, WI, about 30 miles down river from Fountain City. More than 200 people voluntarily left their homes in La Crosse. There the river was at 16.2 feet Tuesday and was predicted to crest at 16.5 feet Wednesday, short of the 1965 record of 17.9 feet.

The Salvation Army and American Red Cross have opened several shelters for evacuees, said Lori Getter, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management.

Local churches and other community organizations have been coordinating volunteers who can fill and pile sandbags.

On Abel-Essman Island -- located in the Mississippi River near Guttenberg, IA -- more than 200 of the 300 families living on the island abandoned their homes Monday. The river is expected to crest there Friday at about 21 feet -- six feet above flood stage.

Riverside towns in Illinois have built 1,000-foot sandbag levees. In Davenport, IA, the river was expected to crest at about 21 feet early next week. There, the record is 22.6 feet, set in 1993.

Thousands of homes in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota are at risk for flooding, said Jeff Stein, a spokesperson for American Rivers based in Davenport. American Rivers is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring rivers nationwide.

Stein said that protecting people was a matter of "moving homes and businesses out of harm's way -- out of the flood plain where it's practical" rather than repairing and rebuilding structures that are repeatedly flooded.

"There are going to be significantly fewer homes damaged this week" than there were in previous floods, he said, "but there are still thousands of homes at risk." "One of the things we've done to the Mississippi River and to other rivers is try to contain them. We've continued to develop areas around the river both for agriculture and urban dwellings.

We've created a situation where water makes its way to the river a lot faster."

Left in a more natural state, the river would be temporarily contained in the flood plain's wetlands, he said. "The water would be held in the soil for awhile. It now takes less water to create bigger floods," he said.

The city of Davenport created river-walks and open-space parkland as a buffer to protect residential dwellings from floods, added Stein. The parkland is now covered with water but so far no homes have been inundated.

Forecasters said the Mississippi was likely to stay high for several weeks, giving some levees their toughest tests since 1965. More rain was forecast for later this week.

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