Reservoirs of Resilience

A TALE of one small Illinois town speaks volumes about the resilience of the human spirit when faced with the Mississippi River's devastating flood.

Residents of Niota - all 143 of them, according to one report - spent the last three weeks helping to sandbag gaps in a three-mile stretch of levee along the river. Saturday night the river broke through, flooding the town. When asked about the effort, one resident said, "We don't feel like we've lost. We did the best we could with our community. You can't believe the pride we have in each other and our neighbors now."

Another observed, "People we'd never seen before gave 150 percent."

Similar stories can be found in communities big and small in the flood-stricken areas of the Midwest. They bear witness to the reservoirs of selflessness and determination that not only are needed now, when the emergency is at its height, but in the rebuilding effort that will follow.

The depth of those reservoirs will be fully tested. Although the National Weather Service expects the weather pattern that brought weeks of heavy rains to the region to ease this week, the flooding in many areas is not expected to subside until the middle of August. Preliminary estimates put damage at $2 billion, although that is likely to rise as floodwaters recede. At least 18 deaths have been attributed to the flood. President Clinton has declared parts of Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri major disaster a reas. Requests for disaster declarations also are expected from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota. The administration is said to be pulling together an $850 million emergency-aid package for the region.

As extensive as the flooding has been, the disaster has not matched the impact of last year's Hurricane Andrew. Damage in Florida alone from that storm reached nearly $20 billion. While this year's flooding has spelled trouble for farms in low-lying areas, the overall outlook for this year's corn, spring wheat, and winter wheat crops in the Midwest remains slightly better than last year's.

That said, the magnitude of the flood's impact on lives and property, and even on sites that attest to the river's rich history, cannot be underestimated. Yet neither can the commitment of many of the region's residents to their cities and towns. As one Niotan said, "Its going to be a long struggle, but we can rebuild."

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