Blagojevich tours Ill. areas flooded by Mississippi

By Deanna Bellandi

PLEASANT HILL, Ill. – Kathy Gates lived in Grafton during the devastating 1993 floods and lost her house and everything in it. Now she lives here, about 50 miles to the northwest, and she’s counting on the levees to hold back raging Mississippi flood waters coursing south through Illinois.

The anticipation of possibly going through another flood is almost too much for Gates to bear.

“I cry every day,” the 56-year-old said Wednesday.

Gates has spent the last few days at a sandbag site at the Pike County fair grounds despite recent back surgery that means the only work she can do is tying white sand bags with green twine.

But she can’t seem to tear herself away.

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    “I don’t want them to go through what I went through,” Gates said about her family and friends.

    Gates was at the sandbagging site in Pleasant Hill, about five miles west of the river, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich visited during a daylong tour of flood-ravaged areas.

    The governor sat riveted to a helicopter window during an aerial tour of areas north and south of Quincy.

    “I’ve never seen that kind of flooding before,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

    He added an ominous note, saying, “It’s going to get worse.” In anticipation that flooding will hit communities down the river in days to come, Blagojevich also announced Wednesday that a separate Illinois Emergency Management command center will be set up in Alton, in the Metro East area.

    Blagojevich on Wednesday also checked out breached levees near Meyer and the Indian Graves system. At both breaches, the grayish brown water poured in and spilled out across the land – dipping in places like a waterfall.

    There was so much water that, from the air, it was hard for an Associated Press reporter on board the helicopter with the governor to tell where the river was supposed to be and where it ran free. Roofs and treetops poked up from the muddy water – the only hints that the areas were once dry land.

    After visiting the sandbagging site, Blagojevich traveled to see the nearby Sny Levee, which stretches more than 50 miles from Adams County south of Quincy, through Pike County and into northern Calhoun County.

    Illinois National Guard soldiers made a makeshift bridge of sandbags so the governor, dressed in jeans and black polo shirt, could cross a muddy area to climb atop a part of the levee they had reinforced.

    Illinois Army National Guard Lt. Jennifer Pinta said she was confident they’d done enough to keep the water back. But she hastened to add they’re up against forces they can’t control.

    “What else can we do?” she said.

    Illinois State Police blocked access into Meyer. Officials expected the floodwaters to overtake 30,000 acres near the levee break there, said Julie Shepard, spokeswoman for Adams County’s emergency management system.

    John Reiter, a 68-year-old retired trucker, has lived in Meyer his entire life and weathered its share of Mississippi River floods – one in 1944, then again in 1960. The Great Flood of 1993 left driftwood on a blade of a ceiling fan in his home.

    “I thought it’d be a good place to retire and go fishing,” Reiter said Wednesday.

    But when the river rose, Reiter figured “it was just getting dangerous.” So he and his wife Joyce fled, finding an apartment 13 miles away in Ursa.

    Reiter wasn’t certain whether he’d have a home to go back to.

    “It’s very traumatic,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.

    Reiter said he was awe-struck by the intensity of neighbors helping each other load possessions into vehicles and strangers who came to see if they could aid National Guard troops with sandbags.

    “To see the efforts of so many volunteers,” he said, pausing to collect himself as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket.

    “The outpouring of help was just unreal; 75 percent of the people there I didn’t even know,” he continued. “It’s so gratifying to know we help each other. … It’s just too bad it was in vain.”

    North of Meyer in the community of Warsaw, workers at the local farmers’ co-op cleaned up after two silos, each with concrete six inches thick, collapsed when soybeans inside them became wet and expanded to many times their actual size.

    Some of the bloated soybeans drifted down river while others simply floated in stagnant water.

    Some of the affected residents said they hoped for the best but were prepared for the worst.

    Diane Rodhouse, 65, who lives on a 1,200-acre farm in Pleasant Hill, said her family has packed up their household belongings and loaded everything into a waiting semi that they hope they won’t have to use.

    But if the levee breaks, they should have as much as 12 hours to get out and drive to safety, said Rodhouse, speaking at the same sandbagging site in Pleasant Hill.

    She and her family are trying to cope with the possibility of the flood striking them, she said.

    “We just go out and do what we can and stay busy,” she said.

    Farther away in northern Illinois, Tony Wolff, chief engineer with Lake County Storm Water Management, said the flooding was improving there.

    “We’re starting to see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel and these dry days are helping the water level off and we should see some decreases soon in the next couple of days,” he said. “It’s slow though.”

    Associated Press Writer Jim Suhr in Meyer, Ill., contributed to this report.