AFTER matching the rising Mississippi and Missouri Rivers inch for inch for nearly a month, exhausted residents here finally lost their battle with rising flood waters Sunday, when the town's water-treatment plant and downtown area were flooded.
Residents said that what happened here was not simply a display of the raw power of the two flooding rivers, but an example of this historic flood's determination to find every weakness in the structures people have erected to stop flood waters.
"It's like Old Man River is finally saying `gotcha!' " Alton Mayor Robert Towse said at a press conference Sunday night. He estimated that 72,000 people in the town of Alton and the surrounding area would be without water for at least two weeks, and that Alton suffered as much as $10 million dollars worth of additional flood damage.
Hundreds of frustrated residents, National Guardsmen, and volunteers who battled to save the town's downtown business area are shocked to see that the three-block-long, sandbagged, and concrete levee they built to stop the waters is still standing.
The rising flood waters triumphed not by smashing through the levee in downtown Alton, but by burrowing through the ground and sewage pipes underneath the levee and bursting up through the pavement behind it.
"Water started leaking out of cracks in the pavement, from the curbs, from everywhere. They covered up one hole with sandbags, and almost immediately another section of pavement would open up," Illinois National Guardsman Mark Konopasek said.
"Each time we covered a leak with sandbags, the pavement split open in a new spot. The street just buckled," Don Huber, Alton's town supervisor and leader in the fight to save the downtown area, explained.
"I've never seen hydrostatic pressure like that. With that kind of pressure, you know the river is going to find a weak spot," Mr. Huber said. "We won several battles, but we lost the war. I tell you, when we finally knew it was gone and started to pull those pumps out, I started crying. The river showed us who was boss today." Levee gives way
Only a few hours later, at 1 p.m. the Mississippi found the weak spot on the levee surrounding Alton's water-purification plant. Over the last two weeks nearly a thousand volunteers and National Guardsmen filled more than 98,000 sandbags with 1,500 tons of sand to raise the plant's levee by four feet.
A small section of the levee collapsed at 1 p.m. when two workers were outside the plant. They watched as a four-foot wall of water surged through the levee. The two remained calm and allowed the water to rise up to their legs before moving. "The current would have easily carried them away," said Ray Lee, president of Illinois-American Water Company, the company that operates the plant.
"It took seconds for the four-foot wall of water to smash against a bulkhead door, and the water then started leaking through the bulkhead. Within 30 minutes, the entire plant was flooded," said Mr. Lee, who was in the plant when it flooded.
State and local officials began to distribute bottled water to the public in four different locations Sunday afternoon and insisted that rationing would not occur. Pumps do not arrive in time
Several town officials openly questioned the failure of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) to provide the town with pumps it had requested to fight the flooding.
"Ironically, the additional pumps we needed will be arriving [Monday]," Mayor Towse said in an interview. "I believe that with those pumps, we could have won the battle in the downtown area."
Bill Moyer, the city's public-works director, said he knew where several pumps were available, but that IEMA failed to fulfill his request for two weeks.
John Plunk, director of IEMA, said he had thought that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Army Corps of Engineers had located the pumps and were sending them to Alton. "We could not locate the pumps," Mr. Plunk said in Alton. "We did the best we could, but it is probably something we need to check into," he said.
"We're going to peel away the sidewalk after this is over and find out what caused that kind of pressure. We're going to rebuild the downtown area and solve this problem for future generations," Towse said during a press conference.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of," he said, "that levee is still standing."