Fighting a river, a sandbag at a time

Tressa Mann has just stepped out of her house to run a few errands - in a flat-bottom boat. Now she's returning, along with her son, to survey what damage has been done by the rising waters of the Mississippi in the brief time she's been gone. "Uh-oh, it's up to the doorknob," says Ms. Mann, looking at a door leading to the basement of her house, which she just bought three months ago.

Her home, along with two dozen others in this low-lying neighborhood know as Ryan's Addition, stands like permanently moored houseboats. While many of her neighbors have evacuated, Mann is sticking it out in her house, despite the intrusion of the Mississippi in her dwelling, since the plumbing and electricity still work.

She managed to stow her kids' bikes and a trampoline on the garage roof before the floodwaters hit. "My only fear now is dropping my keys," she says, climbing from the boat to her front porch.

Mann epitomizes the spirit of stubborn survival pervading towns up and down the Mississippi as the river once again challenges dikes and the dreams of thousands of homeowners in at least five states.

While the flood of 2001 won't earn the tag "great," it is causing hardship and heartache along nearly 500 miles of the Mississippi as the waters hit or approach record levels. A greater-than-normal snow pack in Minnesota, combined with heavy spring rain, has brought out the National Guard in several states, including Iowa. Gov. Tom Vilsack has declared 10 counties a disaster area. The river is closed to barge traffic for hundreds of miles.

Although no flood of this magnitude can be called routine, here in this solidly Midwestern city it is more of a work-a-day disaster, or at least a day-off-work disaster.

Davenport is the largest city along the upper Mississippi with no flood-control system. Residents decided against one long ago, since they wanted to live close to the river and its rhythms. Instead, they try to hold off its episodic spring tantrums with sweat and sandbags.

Some of that grit is evident in the small town of Buffalo, just a few miles south. Mike Wood has brought his wrestling team, plus friends, to help build a sandbag wall around Clark's Landing. The restaurant inhabits a century-old brick building that looks like an urban row house.

The town is spread lazily along a narrow road that parallels the river, with a railroad track in between. Normally, a broad flood plane between the tracks and the river handles all the excess water. Today the Mississippi is lapping at the railroad ties, though the town remains dry.

The 50 students, from West High School in Davenport, hope to keep it that way. In a blur of shovels and sand, they labor to fill a pile of white bags. "Remember, half full," says Mr. Wood, shouting to be heard above Limp Bizkit, blaring from a truck radio nearby. "That way they flatten out real nice."

Wood yells more instruction, then speaks in collegial tones to an arriving teacher, and shouts at the kids again. "The first time I got involved in this madness, it was back in '65," he says. "They talk about 100-year-floods all the time around here. That was a 100-year-flood."

Wrestling team captain Erik Warnecke shovels at an even pace, knowing he'll be there all day. "It just seems like a good thing to do, you know, to help the community," he says, his T-shirt dampening with sweat. "It's a good excuse to get out of school, too, but I'm not sure what's harder, this or advanced algebra."

One student, dropping his shovel, announces he wants to be a "tier." Those on "tie duty" sit in chairs by a table. As the sand pours through an inverted highway cone, they lace up the sacks - a necessary job but one easier on the back and biceps than shoveling.

On the other side of the restaurant - which continues to operate, with breakfasters inside enjoying eggs and hashbrowns in apparent leisure - owner Anthony Mendez directs construction of the sandbag wall.

He bought the restaurant five days before the flood of '93. That year there was no holding back the water.

Today it seems hard to believe that the river, with only a couple feet to go before cresting, could actually spill over the railroad tracks and flood the entire area. But Mendez, wearing his cap backwards, explains how the physics of flooding works in this area.

"It comes up through the storm drains," he explains. "The rails will stay high and dry, but this whole area will be underwater when she crests."

Indeed, that is the fear at a key intersection in town. One hired workcrew is sandbagging the storm drains on the four corners of the entrance to Government Bridge, a critical link between the city and Arsenal Island in the middle of the river. It houses the Rock Island Arsenal, a US Army manufacturing depot that once housed Confederate prisoners of war.

While fighting a river can be grueling, it can also provide much-needed work for those who hire out to do it. Take Alyssa Schulz of Davenport. She was just hired this year to be a "Diamond Girl" for the Quad City River Bandits minor league baseball team.

But the Bandits' brick-walled stadium, built along the waterfront, is now an island. Ms. Schulz was laid off for three to six weeks as a result. She needs the income, which is why she's here, cheery but weary. "All in all, I'd rather be dancing on top of a dugout," she says passing sandbags, hand over hand.

Davenport's stray animals have been affected by the flood, too. The Humane Society of Scott County, normally headquartered by the river's edge, had to relocate 90 cats, canines, and other animals last week to a building on high ground.

"This is the last time," says director Pam Arndt, trying to be heard above the din of barking dogs inside the temporary shelter. In 1993, the society had to evacuate for three months. They stayed at the fairgrounds, ending up in a defunct radiator shop. "I don't know how we're going to do it, but we've had enough."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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