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Neighbors Pull Together Along the Mississippi

Illinois homeowners show grit in saving their properties; some say they want to leave

THE first floor of Garry and Evelyn Rush's recently remodeled white frame house on Main Street here is filled with the swirling brown waters of the Mississippi River.

While the public debate over causes of the massive flooding in the Midwest heats up among engineers, environmentalists, and politicians, Mrs. Rush's first expression of concern was undebatably private.

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"I cried for two days," she says, "then I knew we had to stay with the house and do the best we could."

She, her husband, and friends moved the furniture and appliances to the second floor. They added a gas-powered generator to run a television, lights, and a fan.

Along the Illinois side of the Mississippi, in flooded towns like Alton and Grafton, community members say there is as much resolve and determination to stay and rebuild after the flood as there is weariness and a desire to leave. Community holds together

"Once we got over the initial panic and hysteria," says Betty Nairn, owner of From The Heart Restaurant in Alton, located near St. Louis and 17 miles south of Grafton, "the downtown community came together and said: `We can hang in here and help each other.' "

Seated in her restaurant surrounded by the sound of water pumps as they pull water from her flooded basement, Mrs. Nairn points across the street to the sandbags holding back the river. "We're not supposed to pull all the water out of the basement," she says, "because the Army Corps of Engineers tells us to allow two or three feet to keep a balance of pressure for the building inside and out."

Grafton's Main Street, unlike Alton's, is underwater for almost two miles. In some places, only rooftops of houses poke out of the water. Telephone lines now hang only two or three feet above the water.

Next door to the Rush house, and raised a little higher, the Brown and Company Restaurant and Lounge is still open for business.

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Customers wade around in a lot of brown water. The talk hinges on how the community is pulling together, but people express concern that the waters will recede slowly and further weaken roads and bridges that already needed repairs. Top-floor sleeping

For the Rushes, their meals in Grafton have come from relief organizations, friends, or the few restaurants in town untouched by the waters.

"We don't sleep too soundly at night," admits Mrs. Rush, because of the rippling waters beneath them, "but we'll be ready to start all over again when the waters go down." The river would have to rise another four to five feet to reach the second floor.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, only about 10 percent of people living in Midwestern flood plains have flood insurance. With their home covered by insurance, the Rushes feel fortunate compared to most of their neighbors.

In their outboard motorboat, the Rushes move slowly along what used to be Grafton's Main Street. In most places, the street is submerged under at least eight feet of water. Many owners of uninsured, water-filled homes and businesses in this historic town of 1,000 will need help to stay here and rebuild.

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency says if the state pays 25 percent of infrastructure repair costs, the federal government will pay 75 percent. Gore promises help

This week, Vice President Al Gore Jr. visited Grafton to see the flooding. He promised that an office for federal emergency relief would be opened here soon. Federal cash grants for those uninsured can go as high as $11,900, but more typically are $2,500. Loans to homeowners can be as high as $100,000.

Many people mention the flood of 1973, which has been equaled in levels by this flood. As of this writing, with several days to go

before the river crests, many homeowners face weeks, perhaps more than a month, of waiting before damage estimates can be accurately made after the waters recede.

In response to the flooding, the Independent Bankers Association of America will help residents of the five flooded states fill out loan applications.

"There's a Catch-22 in all this," says Richard Mosby, whose home and business on Grafton's Main Street both have flood insurance. "Flood insurance will pay me to fix up the buildings," he says, "but because of the flood, the buildings are no longer worth what they were. I can't sell them. How could I leave if I wanted to?" Some want to leave

Just where flood waters stop in Grafton in the middle of a street, Ed Womack, who repairs appliances and has lived here for 32 years, sits on the bumper of his truck. "The ones who want to leave are some of the older people," he says. "They're just tired of messing with the river."

One house down, Mary Boucher stands in rubber boots next to her house. She says: "I'd get out of here if I had my way." Her basement is filled with water, and her husband, Joe, moved the furniture from the first to second story a week ago. "I like living here," he says. "It's a good little small town."

The Grafton Business and Tourism Association often promotes the town as "A Real American River Town." To be sure, Mr. Gore saw a submerged town, but one not lacking in community spirit or humor.

On Gore's journey through town, his motorboat and others passed the Grafton Coin Laundry. Water had reached above its windows. Someone was heard saying: "Mr. Vice President, you can get your clothes washed in there, but you can't dry them."

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