Many in Illinois loading sandbags to fight old foe

April 15, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

Like sponges too drenched to absorb anymore, the overflowing Mississippi River and other tributaries around central and southern Illinois sent thousands of residents back to sandbagging yesterday with visions of last year's flood.

Along the Mississippi from St. Louis to Illinois' southern tip, volunteers worked to bolster levees that were facing their first test since being rebuilt temporarily after the Flood of 1993. The ground is still so soggy from last year's floodwaters that new rainwater is simply running off.

In central Illinois, towns unaffected last year battled some of the worst flooding in memory. One death was reported in Illinois Tuesday when a woman's car was engulfed in a flash flood.

With thunderstorms forecast today, Gov. Jim Edgar has put 1,000 Illinois National Guard troops on alert.

Residents in Villa Grove, 20 miles south of Champaign, drew drinking water gallon by gallon from tanker trucks after floodwaters soaked the town's water treatment plant. The local telephone company was building a moat to protect its switching station.

And in Petersburg, northwest of Springfield, a good portion of the town's 2,200 residents pitched in to try to save businesses and homes along the Sangamon River, which was expected to crest today at more than 30 feet -- 8 feet above flood stage.

The town's newly elected mayor, Earl Pillsbury, scurried around, fielding calls from local businesses who were desperately seeking sandbags to save their shops.

"We've just been overwhelmed by the number of people who've helped," Mr. Pillsbury said. "I saw a grandmother out there, a Methodist minister, the state's attorney, even some of my daughters are out there shoveling sand. It's really been a community effort."

Petersburg residents also were trying to shore up the water treatment plant. Eight-foot barricades of rocks and sandbags seemed to have saved the city's water supply -- for the time being.

Those in Villa Grove weren't as lucky, where residents were lining up with jugs on Main Street to get water donated by a nearby town. "We can't drink our water for anywhere from eight to 10 days" because the floodwaters from the Embarras River got into the water treatment plant, said Villa Grove Police Chief Dennis Gire.

The water was expected to crest in St. Louis at 39 feet last night -- 9 feet over flood stage, but 10 feet short of last year's levels, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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