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Flood clean up begins in IL

Frequent flooding doesn't make clean up any easier in Watseka.

BY VICKI DESORMIER | Watseka, IL | January 19, 2008

The severe flooding that forced hundreds of residents from their homes wasn't the first such event in recent memory and it is not likely to be the last, but that doesn't make the response any easier.

Volunteers braved chilly weather this weekend to help clean up around some of the homes impacted by the disaster as local organizations continued to care for local residents. St. Paul's Lutheran School held a fish fry Saturday to raise money for flood survivors.

As the water from the Iroquois River returned to normal, Pastor David Todd of the First Christian Church of Watseka said local churches are making sure people have a warm place to go and hot food to make them more comfortable. Food is coming in from a variety of sources around the area and church volunteers are cooking meals to serve at community gathering spots or to distribute as needed.

At least 350 homes in the community of nearly 6,000 residents were evacuated by local fire officials. Many others left on their own when lack of power and heat made their homes uninhabitable even if water hadn't damaged the houses.

"Temperatures here are not going to stay above freezing for very long for a while," Todd said. "It's very, very cold." Warming shelters have been set up in the city as response to the flooding continues.

Todd said hotels in the city were unable to offer shelter to those who were evacuated from the homes as all of them are in the part of town most affected by floods. He said volunteers are making sure that the other displaced families have found warm shelter with family or friends outside of the flooded area.

"We assume that most of them have gone out of the area to some place warm and dry, but we're checking," he said.

Watseka is the county seat for Iroquois County. Many of the government agencies that serve the whole of Illinois' third largest county were impacted by the flooding.

Justin Kaiser of the county's ESDA (Emergency Services and Disaster Assistance) Department said they are trying to warn people to stay out of flooded basements where the water could be energized from appliances. They are also warning people not to reconnect their own gas or electricity as that can pose many hazards as well.

Kaiser said the flooding is similar to the water problems the city faced in January 2005 except the temperatures are not nearly as cold, which presented even more problems for Watseka residents.

"Three years ago we had the flooding and then temperatures dropped to 25 to 30 degrees below zero," he said. "Then the water froze where it was."

Michael Johnson, the public information officer for the Iroquois ESDA said the flooding in Wateska is "a pretty standard occurrence" with some flooding every year and flooding like the current situation at least every few years.

"We're in a bowl," he said. "There's the Iroquois River on one side and the creek on the other and when one goes down, the other goes up and there's flood." He said the area municipalities are considering mitigation options, such as a levee, to decrease the likelihood of flooding in the future.

A public information meeting has been set for county residents on Tuesday (Jan. 22) to discuss flood plain reconstruction requirements and flood relief support.

Johnson said the emphasis right now has been on cleaning up the damage. FEMA representatives, he said, are beginning to process figures on the numbers of residents who have flood insurance and insurance to cover the contents of their homes.

"We haven't begun to collect any statistics on any of that sort of thing yet," Johnson said.

Dave Roth, president of the Illinois Chapter of VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster), said the extended voluntary community is prepared to help as needs are identified.

Flood waters kept students out of the classrooms all of last week, but most of the buildings had little or no damage. The buildings that house the kindergarten and first grade students received extensive damage, according to Pam Ely of the Unit 9 schools in Watseka. It may be some time before those buildings are able to be used again. In the meantime, she said, the kindergarten students will be going to school at the First United Methodist Church and the first graders will attend classes at St. Edmunds Catholic Church.

Ely said the churches volunteered their facilities for the students. She said the elementary school was surrounded by water, but none of it made its way into the building. There was a little damage to the junior high school, where about a foot of water was pumped out of the boiler room over the last few days, but the classrooms were undamaged. The high school was not affected at all by the rising water.

Mayor John Weidert said city crews are working as fast as they can to help get the situation under control. Volunteer organizations are starting their cleanup work and will push their efforts into full swing as soon as the water drops enough to allow them to move into the area.

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Related Links:

Iroquois County Emergency Services Disaster Agency

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