Sandbagging tries to limit flooding

Thousands of homes damaged, crops destroyed, more levees at risk in Midwest

BY VICKI DESORMIER | June 17, 2008

FILLING BAGS -- As flood waters threatened their communities, these residents filled sandbags.
Credit: FEMA/Greg Henshall

Even the sun breaking through the clouds can't brighten the dreary mood throughout the flooded regions of the Midwest where flood waters have drowned whole neighborhoods in big cities, every inch of some small towns and thousands of acres of carefully tended crops that can't possibly be replanted in time to have a harvest this year.

The rain has slowed to the normal pattern of afternoon showers, but rivers swollen by the torrents that plagued the region in recent weeks are still rising, spilling over their banks and holding up the work of rescue and relief workers who are waiting to get in and begin a clean-up that will last many months.

"The only thing we have been able to do is sandbagging," Scott Sundburg, communications director for Mennonite Disaster Service, said. "We have more than a thousand Amish and Mennonite volunteers doing sandbagging, but until we get some clearance to get people into the flooded areas, we can't do anything else."

Helping local communities with sandbagging is critically important.

The Army Corps of Engineers warned Monday that if sandbagging efforts fail, levees along the Mississippi could be breached in as many as two dozen locations in coming days.

The National Weather Service is predicting that the river will crest more than two dozens levees in Iowa and Missouri this week.

Record flooding has forced more than 37,000 people from their homes during the past two weeks and at least five people have been killed. "We're looking at all-time flood records in terms of levels," said Gov. Chet Culver Monday night.

Residents of Iowa City, where hundreds of homes were flooded, have been warned to expect to be living in a partially submerged city for months. Larry Weber of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa said that in 1993 parts of the city was still dealing with floodwater 80 days later and this month’s flood was higher.

"The city of Cedar Rapids has changed forever," Jim Prosser, the city manager told reporters Monday.

Sundberg, who was flown over flooded areas in Iowa on Monday in a small plane that could take him as close to the flooding as anyone could get, said that houses in the flood areas are "still up to the gills" in water. There is no way, he said, anyone can get into those houses where water is splashing onto the rooftop.

He said he saw acre after acre of corn and soybeans where only a few stalks peeked from below the surface of the water. Iowa, the second largest producer of those crops in the U.S., will lose a good portion of this year's crop, state agriculture officials reported. The Des Moines Register is reporting crop losses from the floods may reach $2.7 billion in Iowa alone.

The Salvation Army has sent Emergency Disaster Services teams to many of the disaster areas across the region and more than 15,000 flood clean up kits to 30 counties in southeastern Wisconsin. They continue to serve meals to flood victims as well as volunteers who are in the area in parts of Illinois and Missouri.

Cindy Johnson, a Lutheran Disaster Response coordinator from Minnesota traveled to Iowa to help coordinate response efforts in that state. She said she and others are preparing assessments that will include church leaders from the ELCA Northeastern Iowa Synod. She said she and other coordinators are waiting to get into flooded areas, but she is meeting with pastors from churches in affected areas to start developing plans for response when officials allow it to begin. The responders said at least two Lutheran camps are under water and a number of congregations have been impacted by the flooding.

Marian MacNeill, a response team coordinator for Presbyterian Disaster Response, said she arrived in Iowa on Monday from her home in Florida.

She said much of the week will be spent meeting with community leaders and with representatives from presbyteries from eastern and north central Iowa.

"We need to find what they envision the needs are going to be," she said.

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