In Ill. flood country, obey crude signs on sawhorses


July 18, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

In the movies the flood breaks through the dam and a wall of water comes roaring down the valley, sweeping away whole towns.

In real life, a flood is usually excruciatingly slow. But unrelenting. And very creepy.

I grew up in Illinois, and I used to cover floods all the time. Floods are natural. We will always have them. But if they seem to be getting worse, that's because we have made them that way.

Pick up your garden hose and turn it on. The water comes gushing out. Now close off part of the flow with your thumb.

As any child knows, the stream of water now speeds up violently.

The same thing happens with rivers.

Town after town along the Mississippi built huge concrete dikes and earthen levees to keep the flood waters out. But that increased up the velocity of the water.

Worse, people rushed in to use the land that had now been "saved" from flooding. Not just farms went up, but housing developments and shopping centers.

I covered my first flood in Cairo, Ill., which is where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River.

Around the town there are concrete walls about two stories high, and during most floods, the water flows high above the town.

You don't even notice it. Only occasionally will you see a huge tree limb or a farm shed floating by above your head.

And there is often no sound at all. To me, that is the scariest thing about floods.

I cannot think of another natural disaster that is silent.

I spent one day interviewing "bottom" farmers. These are people who farm low or bottom land, land that is very rich but cheaper because it is the first to flood.

One farmer gave me directions over the phone to a crossroads near his house. "I'll row out and pick you up from there," he said.

I thought he was kidding, but he picked me up in a boat and rowed me back to the farmhouse, which was on a small rise that had now become a small island.

It was a good interview, and when he rowed me back to my car he told me how I could loop around the flood waters and get to the next town.

"Don't dawdle," he told me.

But I did. And when I finally followed his directions, I came upon a sawhorse blocking the road. It had a sign on it telling me the road was closed due to flooding.

But it was a good two-lane blacktop with steep drainage ditches on each side and I couldn't see any water.

So I just drove around the sawhorse.

A few miles later I noticed that the drainage ditches were half full of water. Then they were completely full. And pretty soon the road was a black ribbon in a sea of brown, seemingly still water.

I began to get a little scared at that point. But now I could see the town up ahead. I could see the back of a big barrier the cops had put up to keep any damn fools from leaving town by this road.

I had been driving pretty slowly, but soon the water lapped across the road and erased the white center line and I slowed to a crawl.

It occurred to me that if the road curved, I would not know it and might easily drive into one of the drainage ditches.

But it was when the water came squirting up through the gas pedal that I stopped the car. I tried to remember if stories about cars floating away on a few inches of water were real or just stories.

There was nobody else on the road, of course. Down here, people took signs on sawhorses seriously.

I started honking the horn like a madman. And eventually a cop came out from the town in a Jeep. He knew every curve in the road, but he drove very, very slowly anyway.

By the time he got to me, the water was up to my rocker panels and I was holding onto the steering wheel and shaking.

"Where you from?" the cop asked me.

Chicago, I told him.

"Yeah," he said. "We figured."

He told me the road rose closer to town and if I stayed on his bumper, I could drive out just fine.

I followed him back and then I asked him for directions to the interstate.

"Goin' home?" he asked.

You bet, I said.

"How long will it take you?"

Seven, eight hours, I said.

"Well," he said, "don't dawdle."

I made it in five and a half.

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