Elsah Residents Stave Off Floods

Hard-working residents of this historic village in Illinois keep watch over cherished buildings with barriers and patrols throughout Midwest flooding

AS people in St. Louis wondered if their 11-mile flood wall could withstand one more crest, the residents of Elsah watched as the Mississippi's flood waters crept back up their streets and threatened to engulf more historic homes.

Elsah, a village of a few hundred, is a bit of living history. Its cluster of pre-Civil War architecture is among the best preserved anywhere on the great river.

As Mayor Jane Pfeifer points out, the old river-town feeling is tangible here - the views and many of the structures not that different from when paddle-wheelers regularly puffed by.

"Everyone in the village has made a lot of sacrifices" to keep that historic milieu, the mayor says. In 1987 the town held an advisory referendum that established its commitment to historic preservation over commercial development.

That commitment is one thing that has rallied town people, as well as volunteers from around the region, to build a system of sandbag walls along the main road that climbs up the hill from the old waterfront - a feature that disappeared weeks ago along with the much-traveled River Road. The lines of sandbags stretch to the doorstep of the old stone building that houses the civic center, now an emergency communications and staging center.

Inside, volunteers answer the phone and feed some people who have been filling sandbags in the hot sun outside - an activity that rarely stops. One Elsah resident, Jim Evans, pulls on chest-high waders to walk down to his house, one of many where pumps bail encroaching water back into the narrow river that used to be Mill Street. He wants to check on a dehumidifier. "The humidity is a constant battle," he says.

Ms. Pfeifer's job of coordinating people and emergency supplies is equally unending. "But the truth is," she says, "it's easy when you've got the quality of people who have volunteered. You tell them to do something, and it's done well."

Vigilance is maintained around the clock. At night, people patrol the streets and newly built barriers to check for any signs that the water is making new inroads. Cy Bunting, a lifelong resident and a maintenance supervisor at nearby Principia College, has overseen much of the effort to defend Elsah against the flood. His message to the "rovers" keeping an eye on the sandbag walls: "If the thing vibrates once and starts to sound odd, call me!"

That's what happened a couple of weeks ago. A call came at 2 a.m. that the wall laboriously built around the Riverview House - one of Elsah's oldest and best-known structures - had sprung a leak. "By the time I got there, all we could do was fish the pumps from the house," Mr. Bunting says. He recalls that it took about a minute for the water to fill the first floor. "The old floorboards popped up toward the ceiling," he says.

"This one will be rebuilt, I'm sure," he adds, inspecting the half-submerged Riverview House as he walks along the barely exposed top of the failed sandbag wall. It won't be easy, however, to put it back just the way it was, in accord with the town's historic-preservation codes.

Other cherished buildings have gone under too, such as the Gate Lodge, a 100-year-old stone structure. Still others are hanging on, as the Mississippi's waters ebb a little, then come back on a fresh crest. Bunting points to the Keyser-Holt House, built in 1859.

"We've had good luck here," he says, explaining that two pumps are cycling on and off to control the seepage. On a higher stretch of La Salle Street, which parallels Mill, the old clapboard structure that houses the Elsah Landing restaurant is above the waters, though flooding on lower parts of the street have stopped all commerce.

Sometimes the pumps have to be reversed, shooting water into basements. Absent the weight of the water, the pressure of moisture pushing in through the saturated ground could crack a foundation.

In most of the affected parts of Elsah, the water may be only a few feet deep, but the forces created by even that much water are considerable. Bunting peers along what used to be a straight line of sandbags down Mill Street. The wiggles are obvious. "It's really hard to believe a couple of feet of water can move a wall like that," he muses.

Back at the civic center, another Elsah old-timer, Bob Denham, takes a break from bag-filling to eat a little spaghetti. "I've seen a lot of floods, but nothing like this," he says. "We're doing fine. Everybody's helping one another out, and it'll be the same when we clean up."

What about putting up a permanent structure, like a levee, to fend off the water in the future? People in Elsah are skeptical of that. "In my opinion, if you're building levees and stuff, it just throws the water out to other places," Mr. Denham says.

[Two months of flooding have claimed 45 lives and caused $10 billion in damage in nine Midwestern states, according to the Associated Press.

[The St. Louis area is preparing for a second battering, as crests on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are due to collide today north of the city, swelling the Mississippi to its highest level ever.

[In St. Louis, the Mississippi is forecast to reach 49.3 feet, less than 3 feet below the main flood wall and well above the previous record of 47.05 feet on July 20.]

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