Towns Cope With Rising River Levels

As the Illinois River continues to rise, communities in the western part of the state are trying to keep their towns dry and their levees high enough. Volunteers, emergency responders, and prisoners have been working side by side since this weekend. Rachel Otwell recently visited a few of those towns – she brings us this report:

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Michael White, from Pittsfield, is a truck driver. But today, he’s volunteering with hundreds of others at a sandbagging site in Scott County in west central Illinois.

WHITE: “Every year they need volunteers for something like this I’m always on it. I grew up in Winchester and I have family in Beardstown and I live in Pittsfield so it’s kind of a big community … just try to help out wherever I can.”

White and other volunteers are joined by inmates from state work camps who also help with sandbagging. The crowd wears colorful rain ponchos and jackets. As rain falls and the temperature drops – the only shelter is a single porta-potty and a small shed where Randy Dolen is fielding phone calls and overseeing the site. He’s the Scott county drainage and levee district commissioner. Dolen says the Illinois River is expected to soon rise over the height of the area levee.

DOLEN: “It’s just a big race right now.”

Another challenge?

DOLEN: “Manpower, having enough manpower to keep everything going. Weather – you know, everybody’s working (though) it’s miserable out there. The guys working out there is giving it all they got, they’re working hard.”

Dolen says workers started on sandbags for the levee on Saturday – and he doesn’t know when their work will end. He says the last time this much work had to be done to combat river levels was over a decade ago.

North of here in Meredosia, more volunteers and inmates from the Clayton prison work camp are working on filling up sandbags. Bob Fitzsimmons is at the site near a bridge that crosses the river – he’s the Jacksonville Morgan county emergency manager. Fitzsimmons says plans are being followed as much as possible – despite the quick rising of water levels.

FITZSIMMONS: “We have most of all of our bags pre-placed out in critical areas so that if we hit a certain top or we have a breach or a problem, they’re already out there for us.”

While he remains hopeful – Fitzsimmons admits he expects at least one breach in the levee that could affect farmland, roadways, and a few homes – which have already been evacuated. He says there is new technology being used as backup to help in efforts to stave off the flood water.

A couple miles south of Meredosia, Dennis Barkmeyer who oversees flood projects for a company called HESCO, is helping set up THAT technology. The barriers being put in place have been used to fight floods globally, and Barkmeyer says, the barriers have served a different purpose as well:

BARKMEYER: “This is the same product that has protected the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last 20 years. We are the civil side of the company we use it for elevating levees and emergency flood protection, we’re the go to product for the corps of engineers nationwide.”

These containers are 4 feet tall blocks of wire basket that are covered with a type of water-proof high-grade canvas. Their insides are being filled with sand. So far 2,000 feet of the barrier are already set up, that number will be doubled. Barkmeyer says the blocks – which fit together like Legos – serve more of a large-scale purpose, and that an area that could take a few weeks to sandbag, will be protected in just about a day’s worth of time.

About ten miles away is a small town called Naples. A look over the levee shows the water is getting dangerously close to the top. A restaurant on the other side is partially submerged in the water.

Jim Freeman is helping two other men at yet another sandbagging site in this town:

FREEMAN: “We just filled an end-loader bucket that is hauling sandbags down to where we’re laying them. We should have trucks doing this but we’re running short.”

Freeman’s a volunteer, but as a local farmer – he’s one of the many community members out today trying to protect their land, homes, and businesses from flood waters. Workers seem tired, but optimistic… that is, until you ask what they think about the weather forecast.

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