Flooding causes bridge troubles in Iowa, Ill.

June 17, 2008 4:00:29 PM PDT
The rising Mississippi River forced the closure of one bridge between Iowa and Illinois and the partial shutdown of another Tuesday as residents of the two states and other parts of the Midwest stacked sandbags to prepare for more flooding. Authorities saved several people, including a motorist rescued from on top of his car, after a levee break near the small village of Gulfport, Ill. They closed the Great River Bridge that connects Gulfport to Burlington via U.S. Highway 34, as well as part of the highway.

People were urged to evacuate the area, Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokesman Chris McCloud said. Floodwaters threatened about 7,500 acres in Illinois, Henderson County Deputy Sheriff Don Seitz said.

About 20 miles down the river, the BNSF Railway Co. swing span bridge was closed early Tuesday to car traffic at Fort Madison, near the Iowa-Illinois line, Lee County emergency management director Steve Cirinna said.

About 30 people were working to raise the railroad tracks above floodwaters, but BNSF Railway Co. spokesman Steve Forsberg said the bridge hadn't closed to trains.

Car traffic moves on the bridge and trains travel on tracks below.

The federal government predicts that 27 levees could potentially overflow along the river if the weather forecast is on the mark and a massive sandbagging effort fails to raise the level of the levees, according to a map obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

Officials are placing millions of sandbags on top of the levees in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri to prevent overflowing. There is no way to predict whether these levees will break, said Ron Fournier, a spokesman with the Army Corps of Engineers in Iowa.

In much of Iowa, there were small signs of a return to normalcy: Interstate 80 reopened near Iowa City for the first time in days, with Interstate 380 to the north scheduled to reopen early Tuesday. On the University of Iowa campus, officials began to take stock of the damage.

In Cedar Rapids, hazardous conditions forced officials on Monday to stop taking residents into homes where the water had receded. Broken gas lines, sink holes and structural problems with homes made conditions unsafe, said Dave Koch, a city spokesman. Officials hoped to allow residents in soon.

Frustrations spilled over at one checkpoint, where a man was arrested at gunpoint after he tried to drive past police in his pickup truck.

In Des Moines, where a levee failure Saturday sent water pouring into the Birdland neighborhood, some residents returned for the first time to see the damage.

Where floodwaters remained, they were a noxious brew of sewage, farm chemicals and fuel. Bob Lanz used a 22-foot aluminum flatboat to navigate through downtown Oakville, where the water reeked of pig feces and diesel fuel.

"You can hardly stand it," Lanz said as he surveyed what remained of his family's hog farm. "It's strong."

LeRoy Lippert, chairman of emergency management and homeland security in nearby Des Moines County, warned people to avoid the floodwaters: "If you drink this water and live, tell me about it. You have no idea. It is very, very wise to stay out of it. It's as dangerous as anything."

Mixed into the floodwaters are pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer from Iowa's vast stretches of farmland.

Ken Sharp, environmental health director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, acknowledged that the floodwaters could make people sick. But he said the sheer volume of water can dilute hazardous substances.

The flooding also raised concerns of contamination in rural wells, said G. Richard Olds, professor and chairman of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

"For rural folks, it's going to be hard to know if their water's safe or not," he said.

Most requests for state aid came from Des Moines County, where the Mississippi River was expected to crest Tuesday evening at 26 feet in a mostly rural area near Burlington. Early Tuesday, the river was at 25.7 feet - more than 10 feet above flood stage - and still rising.

Crews worked to shore up a levee about 7 miles north of Burlington, where water covered about 2 blocks of the downtown area. Several businesses spent the night pumping water from basements, said Sgt. Chad Zahn of the Burlington Police Department.

Several thousand acres and about 250 homes would be flooded if the levee breaks, said Gina Hardin, the county's emergency management coordinator.

Two more deaths were reported Monday in Iowa, bringing the state's death toll to five.

Also Monday, the American Red Cross said its disaster relief fund has been completely spent, and the agency is borrowing money to help flood victims throughout the Midwest.

In the college town of Iowa City, damage appeared limited. Some 400 homes took on water Sunday, and 16 University of Iowa buildings sustained some flood damage over the weekend. But the town's levees were holding and the Iowa River was falling.

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Associated Press writers Jim Suhr in Cedar Rapids; Maria Sudekum Fisher in Burlington; Jim Salter in Iowa City; Amy Lorentzen, Henry C. Jackson, David Pitt and James Beltran in Des Moines; and Eileen Sullivan in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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