Town Enlists Flood-Against-Flood Strategy
One levee is breached to cushion another and spare a town from rushing waters
PRAIRIE DU ROCHER, ILL.
AN innovative last-ditch effort to intentionally flood areas outside this town of 700 has kept rising waters back for at least one more day. The risky strategy of directing flood waters against each other appears to have slowed flood waters enough to keep them from rushing over the town's main levee.
After a confusing evening of local officials saying the fight had been lost, local reports yesterday morning said the levee is still holding, and officials are making a new call for volunteer sandbaggers to return to the scene.
"There was no vote about it, everyone knew this was the only option," Lane Curten, a Prairie du Rocher farmer and member of a local levee commission, said of the decision to intentionally flood the area north of the community.
A break in a levee on the Mississippi River north of Prairie du Rocher on Sunday sent surging flood waters through the town of Valmeyer, Ill., 18 miles away, flooding nearly the entire town. Its 900 residents were safely evacuated. The flood waters then headed south and began to flood a 47,000-acre plain between Valmeyer and Prairie du Rocher.
Town and county leaders here were told that the town would definitely be flooded. The Army Corps of Engineers recommended the only possible defense, intentionally flooding farmland north of town by cutting a hole in a levee on the Mississippi.
Officials hoped that flooding the area north of town would cushion the arrival of the fast-moving flood waters from the north and stop them from rushing over the top of the town's 51-foot levee.
Engineers theorized that the water would then hopefully drain back out into the Mississippi through the man-made hole in the levee it came in.
Officials hoped to create for the first time a man-made flood-water current that would carry the water around a town instead of through it.
"It's a risk, but we don't have a choice," said a tense Matt Hunn, the Army Corps of Engineers official who recommended the strategy to local leaders.
An aerial survey of the area showed that the first part of the plan had gone well. Water pouring in from a 400-foot-wide hole made in the levee met and apparently slowed flood waters from the north.
"There may be a problem," Charlie Dees of the Corps of Engineers warned. "The hole may not be big enough to let the water back out [into the Mississippi]." Officials later decided to widen the man-made gap from the 400 feet to 1,000 feet.
Mr. Curten blamed the Corps of Engineers for not making the initial hole wide enough.
"They should expand it to 2,500 feet," he said. "Now it's gonna be close, real close," he warned.
As dusk approached hundreds of volunteers were bused into town and began stacking sandbags to raise the height of critical parts of the levee by two feet.
Barbara Neber, a 22-year town resident, watched the sandbagging from a distance. "They've tried so hard, it's got to work," she said.
"I have moved nearly everything out of my house, but whatever happens we will rebuild," she said.
As news media and National Guard helicopters hovered above, farmers whose homes had already been flooded joined the National Guardsmen and local men and women in the sandbag lines. A group of Pennsylvania coal miners joined in with dozens of volunteers wearing T-shirts declaring their participation in "The Great Flood of '93."
Just behind the crowded levee, flooded houses could be seen only a few hundred yards to the north. The water, steadily rising three to four inches each hour, lapped at second-floor windows and barn roofs.
At 8 p.m., the sandbagging stopped abruptly. The levee and the town's houses and streets were silent. At 8:30 p.m., evacuation horns sounded after engineers decided that the water was rising too quickly and National Guard units began to pull out for the evening.
"Whether it works or not, we are going to learn a tremendous amount from this," Mr. Dees said. "These things have never been tried before."
"We all agreed that it would be better to try something instead of just letting it hit us head-on," Curten said.