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Facing the Flood of the Mississippi

April 23, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: Rescuing her dog Buddy was the last thing on Dolores Ogden’s checklist, as she prepared for the latest Mississippi River flood. She had left her home on Saturday to spend the night with relatives, but Buddy went back and was stranded as the water rose. It took a boat to retrieve him. Otherwise, ms. Ogden was as ready as she could be — a sandbag dike around her house, all the furniture up on blocks. Ms. Ogden has lived here in an area called the Garden addition in Davenport, Iowa, for more than 50 years. She lived through the infamous 1965 flood that destroyed most of her neighbors’ homes, an even bigger flood in 1993, and others in between. In the past, she’s taken floods in stride; but this time, she’s worried.

DELORES OGDEN: Well, I’m getting up to the age where, yes, I’m beginning to. I don’t know if I’m going to go through it again or not.

TOM BEARDEN: What will you do, move?

DELORES OGDEN: I don’t really know.

TOM BEARDEN: Ogden isn’t the only one getting tired of it. Government predictions say the water is supposed to get this high only once every hundred years, but this is the third so- called 100-year flood in the last eight years. Davenport’s pride and joy, its riverfront park, has been inundated. The riverboat casino is inaccessible, and that will cost local governments an estimated $500,000 in tax revenue. Several businesses like the dock restaurant are merely islands in a rising stream. The sandbag wall around the baseball stadium failed, the brick walls have been damaged. It was even worse in 1993, the worst flood on record. The city suffered millions of dollars in damage to businesses and homes. Mayor Phil Yerington says it won’t be nearly as bad this time because the city has learned by bitter experience.

MAYOR PHIL YERINGTON: The city will look at about a half a million dollars worth of damage, cleanup and preparation for the flood. We can get into the millions if it gets into property loss, the people who have houses, the businesses who have some foundation damage. So there will be damage. I think as the years have gone on, and we progressed from the ’93 to the ’97 and now the 2001 flood, we’ve gotten a lot better at protecting the businesses. So I think that the damage, even though it’ll be there, will be less than it was in 1993.

TOM BEARDEN: For example, Union Station has been flood-proofed with special shutters and pumps. The city bus terminal is elevated and has its own floodwall and is still in operation. Not so for the Front Street Brewpub. The old warehouse that owners Steve Zuidema and Jennie Ash restored nine years ago is huddled behind a sandbag wall that was built over the past week. If it fails, their business will be deluged. There’s already a steady stream of water leaking into the basement brewing area. Floodwater covered the main floor in 1993, and it took them nine weeks to reopen.

TOM BEARDEN: Have you been surprised at the frequency of the floods?

STEVE ZUIDEMA: Absolutely. I grew up in Fulton, Illinois, and we had a flood of ’65, which at that time was the record- breaking flood in recorded history. And we came down here to Davenport, it never occurred to me that we’d ever see a flood like that. And here we are nine years later, and we’ve had four of them, and several of them are top, top floods.

TOM BEARDEN: You ever get discouraged?

STEVE ZUIDEMA: Certainly. It’s a tough thing to go through a flood, and go through the weeks of preparation, and the weeks afterward of cleanup, and you’d like not to do that when you’re running a business. Running a business has its own problems, and to have to think about doing something like that is tough.

TOM BEARDEN: Yet businessmen and homeowners on the other side of the river in rock island, Illinois, don’t have any such problems. They’re safely ensconced behind a floodwall that was built after the 1965 flood. Their casino is still operating and still generating tax revenue. Davenport had the same access to federal funds and could have built a wall back then, too. But Mayor Yerington says the city made a conscious decision not to.

MAYOR YERINGTON: What happened is we decided we could keep the only unobstructed view of the river park in the quad city area. Because of that, we have about a five-, six-acre park, LeClair Park, that is the scene of festivals that bring 150-, 160-, 200,000 people to our riverfront each year. That generates a lot of money.

TOM BEARDEN: Davenport is the only major city on the upper Mississippi that doesn’t have a flood wall.

TOM BEARDEN: Ever envious when you look across the river and see the flood wall that’s on the other side?

STEVE ZUIDEMA: Yeah. I think if I had my choice, after having gone through almost nine years of floods, if somebody said what would you have, I would probably have a floodwall here.

TOM BEARDEN: Floodwalls aren’t even an option for Wiley Plummer. He and his wife, Heidi, own a house that sits directly on the river bank, when the river isn’t out of its banks. He and his neighbors have traded their cars for small boats to navigate the country lane that leads to their little cluster of houses near Pleasant Valley, a few miles east of Davenport. The first level of his home is under several feet of water, but that’s no surprise. It’s happened many times before. It’s a price they’re willing to pay to live in their dream home.

WYLIE PLUMMER: This is the original house, when we first bought it. And I told Heidi that I could make it look like this.

TOM BEARDEN: Did she believe you?

HEIDI PLUMMER: No.

WYLIE PLUMMER: Well, actually she didn’t. So we had to be a little creative because of the way the house was built, with the short ceiling and things. So she says if you can make it look like that, we’ll buy it. So we bought it.

TOM BEARDEN: They’ve put an enormous amount of work into the home: Tearing out floors, rearranging walls, putting in large windows and a fireplace. They’ve also made the house more tolerant of flooding, moving heating and water systems high above ground level. Even so, they still expect some damage.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you get a lot of mud down there when it floods?

HEIDI PLUMMER: Yes.

WYLIE PLUMMER: There’ll be probably about three or four inches of mud, and what we’ll do is, we’ll scoop out most of it and then take it back out to the river and put it where it belongs.

TOM BEARDEN: But there’s more to it than just mud. Davenport’s water treatment plant, and others like it up and down the river, have been flooded. That means raw sewage is flowing into the river, risking the health of everyone who comes into contact with the water. The Plummers will have to chemically disinfect their house.

TOM BEARDEN: So you’re facing a lot of hard work, disinfecting the house, you have a potential health threat, and yet you still want to live here?

WYLIE PLUMMER: Yeah.

TOM BEARDEN: Some people might find that puzzling.

HEIDI PLUMMER: I know, I work with a few of them.

TOM BEARDEN: What do they tell you?

HEIDI PLUMMER: They tell me I’m crazy.

WYLIE PLUMMER: Yeah. But then we invite them out here, and when it’s nice out here, we have a little party or something on the deck and cook up some hot dogs or whatever, and then they see why we like it out here too, so there’s good with the bad.

TOM BEARDEN: And the good outweighs the bad?

HEIDI PLUMMER: Definitely.

TOM BEARDEN: Davenport hasn’t been alone in preparing for the flood. The Iowa National Guard is helping build levees and guarding against looters. People who live in the little town of Buffalo, Iowa, 12 miles southwest of Davenport, are also getting help. These young people are Americorps volunteers who have been given a crash course in how to build sandbag barriers against the river.

YOUNG GIRL: The local citizens have been very, very supportive. They’ve been coming around offering us water and support and being very thankful for our efforts here.

TOM BEARDEN: The Mississippi is some six feet above flood stage now, and is expected to crest in davenport tomorrow morning at a near-record level. People up and down this stretch of the river have their fingers crossed, hoping that all their preparations will keep damage to a minimum. But they also know it will be weeks before the river completely returns to its banks.