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Thousands flee rising rivers

Historic flooding causes heartbreak for thousands of residents, many of whom do not have flood insurance

BY VICKI DESORMIER | Cedar Rapids, IA | June 13, 2008

"We don't know if we'll be needed for clean up or muck out. We'll just do what's needed."

—Bill Adams, CRWRC

People who lived in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, never figured on buying flood insurance. All the prediction maps showed the chance of severe flooding would come once every 500 years.

The last time water raged over the banks of the Cedar River, filling the streets, it was 1851. The water today is six feet higher than that and with rain expected to continue for the next week, the record may hold for decades to come.

Jeff Zogg, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Davenport said he was "amazed" by the enormity of the flood in Cedar Rapids and elsewhere in the Midwest. "Usually if you break a record, you only do it by an inch or two."

Elsewhere along the Cedar River, in parts of Minnesota, the river has crested nearly eight feet above flood stage. Many homes along the river have basements filled with water, but evacuations are not being enforced. However, in some areas west of Madison, Wisconsin, hundreds of people have been urged to leave their homes because of flooding along the Wisconsin River and streams.

The torrential rains have inundated the region. Residents in Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana have had to evacuate and abandon their homes. Some have returned to find nothing but water where their houses had once stood. The lucky ones find a shell on which they can rebuild once the waters recede. Thousands of volunteers are still piling up sandbags in an effort to hold back still-cresting rivers.

Bill Adams of Christian Reformed World Relief Committee said he has volunteers going to Parkersburg (where a tornado destroyed much of the town recently) because the long term response team is already in place there. Every place else, he said, is just waiting for assessments to begin.

"We'll just have to wait and see where we can go and what we can do," he added. "We don't know if we'll be needed for clean up or muck out. We'll just do what's needed."

Kevin Massey of Lutheran Disaster Response said he will soon be traveling to Wisconsin to meet with flood survivors in the southwestern part of the state who had almost begun to recover from the floods that washed away many of their homes last year.

"It's heartbreaking to see places like Soldiers Grove re-flood," he said. "Those people are in areas where we were on the verge of doing rebuilding and now...well, now they're going to have to start all over again."

Johnny Wray of Week of Compassion said the situation is so unsettled that he is not sending volunteers to either Wisconsin or Iowa right now. He is instead depositing funds in regional accounts for the local churches to use to help out where it is most needed.

"We are just waiting to see what happens," he said.

In the region, damage to infrastructure could top a billion dollars when the rebuilding begins. Levees are failing on a daily basis, bridges and railroad structures are collapsing, sometimes rushing downriver like piles of twigs and metal sticks.

On Friday, federal highway officials blocked off a section of Interstate 80 in Iowa. It is a key transportation route for truckers and others traveling east-west across the region. Factories all across the Midwest, including a John Deere facility, a corn processing factory and several slaughterhouses operated by Tyson Foods, are not able to open due to both widespread power outages and to the simple fact that workers can't even get to them to report for work.

The flooding is not limited to urban areas, however, farms are also suffering dramatic losses. The U.S.Department of Agriculture issued a report earlier in the week that predicted the average corn crop would be at least three percent smaller this year than last. Fields are submerged. Traders were paying $7 a bushel for the product this week, an all-time high for the crop. The price is expected to continue to rise. Analysts for the Chicago Board of Trade issued a statement that said the higher cost of the product does not spell more money for farmers whose crops will probably be the smallest in recent memory.

Zoog said the weather patterns are expected to remain the same in terms of precipitation throughout the region. Temperatures might cool a bit, he said, but the rain would remain constant for another week.

Near Kansas City, MO, the Missouri River pushed over the top of a levee earlier this week, making a breach that is wider than a football field. About 100 residents have been asked to voluntarily evacuate the area but few have left, in spite of the rising water. City officials said they want the residents to leave because the water from behind the breached levee and the continued rain will keep the flood waters rising.

Matt Tidwell, a spokesman for Kansas City Power and Light, said they have been able to continue producing electricity despite the flooding there. So far power has not been interrupted.

A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers said there were no other breached levees anywhere along the Missouri River.

The Mississippi River, the main north-south transportation corridor in the country is straining under the pressure of the constant rain as well. Ron Fournier, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said two locks along a 250 mile stretch of the Mississippi River from Fulton IL, to Clarksville, MO, have been closed in an effort to hold back the rising water. The closure, which could last up to two weeks, will bring a stop to barge traffic on the river, leaving agricultural items as well as fuel and other commodities stranded on the water.

Still, the water is rising further and further downriver. According to Mark Britt, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in St. Louis ,MO, said the water is rising at an alarming rate in his area, though he doesn't expect to top the records set in 1993 any time soon. He said that the Mississippi River could reach 39 and a half feet by June 20 (flood stage is seven feet below that) and that forecast models do not show much of a break in the current weather patterns.

"It could go higher…it will probably go higher," he said.

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