Sandbags, heartbreak, and help

Floods rush through Midwestern towns.

It's a warm Illinois afternoon, and in the Warren High School parking lot, retirees, soccer moms, and volunteers from the naval base are pouring, tying, piling, loading, and pouring and tying again. Music blares from a red Jeep as endless lines of sandbaggers laugh at dark humor and discover neighbors they've never met.

Brittany Bernard, a Warren freshman in a pink shirt and bright pink nail polish, is cinching bags and giggling with her friends. School has been closed all week. "I've never seen a flood this big," she says cheerfully. "But it's really cool - people are helping."

Here in Gurnee, the floods have roused a sense of shared humanity that's often tapped by the primal threats of nature. "It's like a big melting pot out here," says Jerry Haines, a Gurnee yacht broker taking a short breather from piling bags. "Everyone's coming together." The license plate on his black truck reads "BY A BOAT" - exactly, he jokes, what people will have to do next.

After days of storms, this northern Illinois town is a landscape changed: Hundreds of thousands of sandbags are lumped into low, sagging walls along the roads, cars have disappeared, homes have become small islands, and families call out to each other from motorboats, or wave oars in acknowledgment from small canoes.

The battle against nature's power is a scene playing out across the Midwest. The Des Plaines River water that has drowned this town is just the latest disaster in a week of wild weather as tornadoes, thunderstorms, and floods sweep through towns from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania. Two people have died - one in an Illinois thunderstorm, one in a Nebraska tornado - but overall, the toll has been surprisingly light.

These aren't the first floods for Gurnee. Many here remember the storms of 1986, when the river rose a record 11.9 feet - nearly 5 feet above flood stage - and caused $100 million in damages. There were smaller floods in 1993 and 2000. Early this week, residents here and 25 miles downstream, in the town of Des Plaines, were bracing for worse. But by Wednesday, the river had crested in Gurnee at 11.7 feet, according to the National Weather Service. Des Plaines residents are still waiting for the bulk of flooding, with waters expected to crest at around 9 feet on Friday, 2 feet lower than earlier predictions.

On Tuesday, as waters rose, Cathy Froman assessed the damage from her back porch. A metal fence post sticks up from the lake that has swallowed her yard.

Inside, her rooms are crammed with a decade's worth of boxes, clothes, furniture rescued from a basement that lies 10 feet below the water line. Still, hundreds of sandbags and three water pumps have kept it remarkably dry. Ms. Froman still can't believe the outpouring of help. "People called before it even got bad," she says. "It's the nice side of humanity."

Not everyone has stayed dry. Patrick Wheeler, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary from nearby Lake Villa, says one woman he ferried to her water-logged home cried the whole way. A Chinese couple whose laundromat had flooded didn't want to leave; Mr. Wheeler later heard they had no insurance. "It's heartbreaking," he says, in a British accent.

Other stories are happier. The Gurnee Community Church - whose sign reads, "We've got 'peace like a river' " - is surrounded by water, but volunteers and flood-prevention upgrades have kept it pretty dry, says associate pastor Stu Merkel, heading to church in a canoe.

On Sunday, the church still held services. Afterward, congregants stuck around to pile sandbags. "We're all a little tired, a little sore," Mr. Merkel says. "But so far, what we're doing has been working."

A few blocks north, an even larger effort has been staged to save the Gurnee Grade School. Most playground equipment is underwater, and the tops of jungle gyms poke up like jagged metal islands; a few petunias bloom on the only slice of ground still visible. But pumps and a massive wall of sandbags have kept the waters mostly at bay. The cafeteria, visible through windows far below the water level, looks dry.

"Last night, I didn't think we were going to beat this, but now I think we've got this thing licked," says Brian Weir, a huge grin on his face, after learning that the river was finally starting to recede. His third-grade son attends the school, and he's been there for 16 hours a day since Saturday. "We had an army out here Saturday," he says.

The Des Plaines River has long been a flood zone, with flat valleys, slow-moving water, and few outlets for heavy rains. Excess water creeps up over marshes and low-lying land along the river.

Local towns mostly forbid new construction in the flood zones, but older houses still flood every decade or so. Long-time residents know the sandbag drill, while many newer ones drew comfort from the last big flood, thinking they were safe for awhile. "We worried when we moved in," says Ms. Froman, the woman whose backyard has become a lake. "But we were thinking 1986 was the 100-year flood. This hasn't been 100 years!"

There has been some talk of building a dike or levee to protect the town, and Des Plaines got approval for a flood-control project after 1986. Construction was delayed, though, and it won't be finished until this winter.

On Tuesday, many Des Plaines residents were still in wait-and-see mode, with mixed reports coming in about expected flood levels. As they wait, residents are busy. Most homes and businesses along River Road had sandbags in front of garages, around doors, or heaped in the yards. Bulldozers refilled sand piles and families ferried truckloads back home.

"This is a new experience," says Sally Zurawski, as she and her husband fill bags in their subdivision. "But you meet a lot of your neighbors, that's for sure."

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