From the Dec. 21, 2008 edition of The Hawk Eye

Oakville really never had a chance. In the end, the Des Moines County bottoms were spared because Henderson County, Ill., was not.

Burlington Steamboat Days closed early, U.S. 34 was closed for more than a month, and The Burlington Apartments remain closed more than five months after the Mississippi River crested 25.73 feet June 17 at Burlington.

Two southeast Iowa residents died as a result of the high water.

Such was the short story of the Flood of 2008 — a story whose final chapters have yet to be written, for the fates of Oakville, Gulfport, Ill., and their surrounding farmsteads remain both tenuous and undetermined.

This much is certain: The flood was epic. It will be the flood against which future floods will be measured. Its stories will be told and retold for years.

As early as March, there were uneasy concerns that significant flooding along the Mississippi River was probable.

"We're expecting the snow melt season to evolve differently (than in 2001 — when Burlington experienced its second-worst flood). We're expecting the high (Mississippi River) water to be the result of high water in tributaries, not high water in the Mississippi basin," Jeff Zogg, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, told The Hawk Eye in a story published March 3, 2008.

Two months later, the Mississippi reached its fourth-highest crest, 21.18 feet, at Burlington. But few expected the worst was yet to come.

Iowa, which was experiencing its soggiest year since 1873, endured an exceptionally wet period between May 29 and June 12 when a statewide average of 8.99 inches of rain fell (normal for the period is 2.45 inches). Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, whose agency maintains such records, said it was doubtful the state collectively had ever seen a larger two-week total.

Record flooding occurred along the entire length of the Cedar River, the Iowa River below Marshalltown, the Mississippi River along Louisa, Des Moines and Lee counties and a portion of the Des Moines River between Fort Dodge and Des Moines.

Many other smaller rivers and streams also recorded major or record flooding: the Turkey at Elkader, the Upper Iowa at Decorah, the Shell Rock at Waverly.

The most exceptional flooding, though, occurred at Cedar Rapids. On June 13 the Cedar River crested more than 11 feet higher than previous record crests in 1929 and 1851. More than 24,000 people had to be evacuated from the city, and more than 1,300 city blocks were submerged at the height of the flood.

Elsewhere, scores of bridges, highways and roads across the state were closed — some for short periods of time, while others remain closed. In southeast Iowa, 5 feet of water covered U.S. 61 north of Wapello, closing it for two weeks. The federal highway also was closed for 24 days near Alexandria, Mo. Across the Mississippi River in Henderson County, Ill., U.S. 34 was closed for 33 days.

The Coralville Reservoir above Iowa City was swollen as never before.

Ordinarily, 10,000 cubic feet of water is released every second from the reservoir during the summer months, according to the U.S. Corps of Engineers. During the historic flood of 1993, discharges reached 20,000 cfs. That was the first time water flowed over the 50-year-old reservoir's emergency spillway.

On June 10, the spillway was topped again, and outflow matched the 1993 level. By June 15, the Corps was forced to increase the discharge to an amazing 39,462 cfs — nearly four times the normal outflow and twice the surge recorded in 1993.

Zogg's gloomy forecast was being realized. Indeed, the National Weather Service warned "a historic hydrologic event is evolving" and said unprecedented crests were expected on still more Iowa rivers and creeks.

Burlington Steamboat Days opened the day the Coralville Reservoir spillway was topped, and event officials were casting a wary eye on the rising Mississippi.

During the great flood of 1993, the river was high throughout the spring and covered the port parking lot during the weeks leading up to the music festival. But it receded enough in early June to allow music to proceed before rising again to a record 25.10 feet. Officials were hoping for a similar break.

What was different from 1993 was the way Alliant Energy configured the electrical grid for the Burlington riverfront. Once the river reached 22 feet, electricity powering the lights, carnival and food stands would be terminated. There was a sliver of hope that level wouldn't be breached until after the final fireworks display.

It wasn't to be.

For the first time since 1965, Burlington Steamboat Days had to call it quits early.

"We regret this, so does the city ... but we can't fight Mother Nature, folks," BSD President Bruce Slagle said June 12, 2008. "And that's what we're up against at this point."

"The order is that we are to cease all operations, vacate the city of Burlington riverfront no later than by late afternoon Friday, June 13," Slagle continued. "It's important that we continue to protect the public at large and the property."

KC and the ironically named Sunshine Band was the year's final act Thursday night. Headliners Kenny Loggins and Gretchen Wilson were scratched, as was the Gibbs Brothers, a local band planning a Main Stage breakout performance.

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Once the festival cleared out, the city swept in to reinforce sandbagging efforts around the Port of Burlington and at Memorial Auditorium. Downtown businesses erected a 3 1/2-foot-tall barrier down Front Street to protect their properties.

"The situation is bad, and it's getting worse," said Brian Pierce, Quad Cities National Weather Service meteorologist. "In tributary areas, we are looking at floods of record occurring."

Pierce said some tributaries were running above any data ever recorded.

Clearly, this was uncharted territory.

Rain kept falling, and the resulting volume quickly overwhelmed Iowa City and Coralville. The Iowa River reached 31.5 feet — 9.5 feet above flood stage — seriously flooding the university campus. Water caused unprecedented damage inside most of the 20 buildings that closed during the flooding. Eventually, the university would be allocated $71.6 million in FEMA flood recovery funds.

Columbus Junction and Fredonia were the next communities downstream and were especially vulnerable since the Cedar River empties into the Iowa River there — Columbus Junction on the west bank, Fredonia on the east. As a precaution, all of Fredonia's 250 residents were evacuated.

Volunteers began filling sandbags June 10 along Iowa 92 to protect the Columbus Junction water plant and downtown businesses.

Over the next four days, Mayor Dan Wilson said close to 100,000 sandbags were filled.

"We had 30 to 40 sand trucks running constantly for four days straight," he said. "We had four to five days of working around the clock, and we thought we were OK."

But sandbagging was abandoned June 14, when it was realized the efforts would be futile.

That night so much water was coming downriver so fast it burst through three levees. The result was the community's senior center, its medical center, pharmacy, water plant and a couple dozen other businesses were under as much as 15 feet of water.

"It broke my heart to tell people we had to stop filling sandbags and we were probably going to lose the battle," Wilson said. "But the biggest thing I want to learn from all of this is, don't underestimate what the spirit of Columbus Junction is."

Four months later, on Columbus Day, the community's only full-service grocery, Economart, reopened after extensive renovations. Casey's General Store, Columbus Junction's only gasoline station didn't open until November.

With the south end of Columbus Junction filling with water, volunteers turned their attention to Oakville. But there, the Iowa River makes a sharp bend northward before sweeping around Oakville. Just a day after Columbus Junction was inundated, the torrent of water was too fast for the curve and it shot directly east — the natural path of least resistance — toward the Mississippi, and the tiny town was swamped.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Mayor Benita Grooms recounted that she was in the town hall when a National Guard vehicle drove up to the building and a Guardsman got out and started shouting, "The levee's going, get out. Get out now."

Within hours, most of the town and surrounding area was submerged under several feet of water and remained flooded for days, forcing residents to find refuge elsewhere.

Few had flood insurance.

A Blackhawk helicopter flew Gov. Chet Culver into the area June 16, and Louisa County received a presidential disaster declaration.

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"It's all gone," said Richard Roberson, 79, and a 25-year Oakville resident. "People up in the air (airplane) told us our house is gone. We took whatever we can and got out a few days before the levee broke," he said. "There's nothing left."

Downtown Oakville, and in fact the entire Elliot Township of Louisa County, was submersed in 4 to 10 feet of water.

About a thousand hogs were left behind in flooded confinement buildings, though.

As the Oakville levees were threatened, about 37,000 hogs, most of them belonging to Oakville-based TriOak Foods, were evacuated from numerous farms. But the hogs left behind created a momentary furor.

Dozens treaded water inside a flooded confinement building. As they died, their bodies bloated. A few escaped and swam to a reinforced levee south of town. Fearing damage to the levee, some of the hogs were shot.

One tired pig was lying at the bottom of the levee "like a pink sandbag," said Oakville farmer Jeff Campbell.

PETA, the controversial animal-rights organization, called for authorities to arrest the farmers responsible for the livestock on cruelty-to-animals charges.

Marc Zaiser, a Burlington contractor, took a boat to Oakville to rescue still-alive hogs and retrieve dead ones. Some of the rescued hogs were sent to a West Virginia rescue farm.

The weekend Oakville succumbed to the floodwater, Scott Jared McCulley, 35, of Grandview drowned in the water.

Family members reported McCulley missing June 14, and his vehicle was found east of Wapello on a gravel road adjacent to floodwater near his parents' home. The Louisa County Civil Air Patrol launched a search of the area, but firefighters in boats found his body the next afternoon.

Meanwhile, an obviously perturbed Louisa County Sheriff Curt Braby noted that two Oakville residents, Richard David Robertson, 56, and Eric Todd Hawkins, 30, were arrested for refusing an evacuation notice to leave Oakville.

"It took those firemen away from trying to save the community to trying to save some folks who did not understand 'Get out,'" he said.

The urgency of the situation in Louisa County helped convince Des Moines County residents to heed a mandatory evacuation in the northeast portion of the county.

As soon as the order was placed, Sheriff Mike Johnstone dispatched deputies to the area to knock on doors and inform residents they had to leave for higher ground.

"Make sure we knock on every door," he told deputies. "Tell them this is a serious situation."

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As water topped the levee at Oakville, the bottoms area to the Hawkeye-Dolbee Diversion Channel — the Big Ditch — was underwater.

Scores of volunteers were bused in to shore up the Big Ditch.

"My house is past help. So we're trying to save everybody else's," said Bethany Frank as she helped fill sandbags. Her home on the outskirts of town was flooded up to the roof.

But emergency officials doubted whether levees along the Big Ditch would hold. If they failed, 18,000 acres in the bottoms to Burlington would be inundated, flooding another 250 rural Des Moines County homes.

William Staats Jr. was sitting inside his home on 250th Street watching television when a deputy came knocking, telling the man he needed to leave.

Staats opted to stay, telling the deputy the home had been through the flood of 1946 and is still standing.

Early June 16, despite an estimated 2.5 million sandbags, three menacing bulges were discovered along the levee, and it no longer was a question of if the levee would fail, but when.

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Pressure on the bulges eased only when early the next morning, the Mississippi River gouged out a 300-foot-long gash along Henderson County, Ill., Levee No. 2, and the Mississippi River poured into 28,000 acres of western Henderson County. Gulfport, Ill., which was evacuated only two days earlier, was under about 10 feet of water. Three helicopters evacuated those stranded by the rising water, including some who were trying to shore up the levee.

Burlington, meanwhile, watched the flood pass the 1993 record before the levee opposite its shore broke. At 4 a.m. June 17, the river registered 25.73 feet at Burlington. It then dropped 1 1/2 feet as water rushed into the Henderson County basin. Two days later, the river crested a second time at 25.19 feet. But water stretched eastward from Burlington to the Indian Mound curve, some five miles away.

At least 400 people were displaced by the break, and a shelter was set up at the West Central High School outside of Biggsville, Ill.

Two highly public casualties were the BNSF rail line through Henderson County and U.S. 34.

Rail traffic through Burlington had been halted June 10 and rerouted as the river started encroaching on the bridge's western approach into Iowa. When the Henderson County levee broke, portions of track were destroyed between Gulfport and Gladstone, Ill. BNSF moved swiftly to repair the damage, emptying its wallet of an estimated $30 million in the process; but still the railway was closed for nearly three weeks. Motorists who relied on U.S. 34 had to wait longer.

As the Mississippi finally started receding, an estimated 70 billion gallons of water remained in Henderson County. U.S. 34 remained closed until July 19, forcing Illinois residents who worked and shopped in Burlington to take a long detour 20 miles south through Fort Madison. Chamber of commerce officials estimated 40 percent of Burlington's workforce lived in Illinois.

As the area around Gulfport flooded, pressure was eased on the Big Ditch levee. Northern Des Moines County breathed a sigh of relief. That was welcome news to volunteers fighting to save a levee north of Burlington.

"Nobody knows how close it was," said Brian Wiegand of Oakville. "It was by a whisker."

But water still was rising in Burlington, and a cadre of reporters representing an assortment of national media converged on the city.

"The town has basically come to a standstill today while everybody focuses their efforts on emergency operations," said Sean Callebs of CNN as he stood in hip waders at the Main and Division intersection. "The way they're looking at this — this is the last line of defense for a large area."

A 42-inch-high barrier hastily was built from the U.S. 34 off-ramp to Valley Street, and withstood water that claimed the Port of Burlington and Memorial Auditorium.

Sandbags successfully held back water to Camera Land, 108 N. Main St., and surrounding businesses. But electrical and natural gas service to about 200 customers up to Fourth Street was interrupted.

Chest-deep water in The Burlington Apartments basement ruined the electrical service and forced 76 residents out early June 15. They weren't allowed to return until December.

That made Donald Lippert and his sister, Ruth Butler, feel like refugees as they stayed at Bickford Cottage, an assisted-living facility.

"My sister is not doing well. She is 90, and at that age it's not easy to have your life uprooted," said Lippert, 80. "I have spent several thousands of dollars out of my own pocket since June just to have a roof over our heads. All we want to do is go home."

Representatives from MetroPlains Development blamed their insurance company for the slow return.

"This is completely in the insurance company's hands. We have no control over it," said Gary Stenson, president of MetroPlains. "The insurance company has been slow to act. They won't let us speed the process up."

The high water closed several streets. Besides the entire length of Front Street, Main Street between Elm and Jefferson streets was under water. Mill Dam Road and Tama Road were flooded by Flint Creek.

Sam Jennison, owner of The Drake on the Riverfront restaurant, said water also flooded his basement, and local health officials would not let his staff cook food. Instead, he served beer and soft drinks to news crews and locals taking in the spectacle of the swollen river.

"It'll slow us down, but we're just going to clean up, open up and go right back at it," he said. "It's not what happens to you that makes a difference, what makes a difference is how you handle what happens to you. I said, 'Look at that flood, here it comes'. Let it flood. You can't change it, all you can do is live with it."

Jennison, 73, joked he would, for the evening, change the name of the restaurant to The Drake in the River.

Some found Jennison's pluck insensitive, but it was more the rule than the exception.

"I've already been impressed by numerous Iowa businesses that are going above and beyond to help their employees get through this trying time, and I'm confident we'll continue to see more examples of that Iowa spirit," Gov. Chet Culver told a reporter from the Guardian newspaper in Great Britain.

A second fatality in Iowa related to the flooding occurred the same June 15 in Henry County, far from a swollen river.

A New London woman died after her vehicle was struck by a bus carrying Iowa National Guard members headed to Burlington to assist sandbagging efforts.

Janice Brissey, 68, was stopped on U.S. 34 east of New London when she was rear-ended by a bus driven by Guardsman Trevor Daniels, 21, of Urbandale.

Brissey was taken by ambulance to the Henry County Health Center in Mount Pleasant where she was pronounced dead.

Downriver, sandbagging efforts in Niota, Ill., devastated in the 1993 flood, kept the BNSF swing-span bridge over the Mississippi open - on the Illinois side.

Across the river in Fort Madison, a low spot in front of the former Sheaffer Pen plant kept filling with water, interrupting traffic.

Riverview Park now was part of the river, soaking the replica Old Fort Madison, the Fort Madison Art Museum (though the exhibits had been removed) and the Flood Museum. The museum opened after the 1993 flood, and was filled with mementos of what was thought to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. The museum has flooded four times since.

Farther downriver, the U.S. 136 approach to the bridge linking Hamilton with Keokuk was built up four feet, so the bridge could remain open. Still, cars backed up, sometimes making the crossing as long as an hour.

Keokuk was bracing for a 28.2-foot crest, well above the 27.58-foot record set in 1993. Voluntary evacuations were issued for several housing areas, but the Henderson County break siphoned enough water that the crest hit 26.92 feet — still the second-highest ever.

"Their misfortune had been our fortune. I'd rather it hadn't come at the expense of others. But it is what it is," said Steve Cirinna of Iowa's Lee County Emergency Management Agency.

"We've had a little relief because the levee breaches lowered the river level a little," said Kathy Dougherty of the Hancock County, Ill., Emergency Services Agency.

The flood also had political overtones, especially since 2008 was an election year.

Presumptive nominees of both major political parties, John McCain and Barack Obama, had scheduled campaign events in Iowa just as flooding washed over much of the state. Gov. Chet Culver asked both candidates to cancel their plans to ensure police could focus on the flooding rather than be diverted to candidate security.

But on June 20, McCain slipped into Columbus Junction to view the devastation and observe a wedding that had been postponed because of the sandbagging effort. The visit went without a hitch — except for the couple.

Some business owners who met with McCain said they were glad to see him.

"It means a lot," said Mary Gipple Brune, who owns a consignment shop. "I just hope he can do something for us ... We've been out of business since clear last Tuesday."

In Oakville, where its 439 residents weren't allowed back into town until June 26 to inspect the damage, fissures are evident as some residents want to cut their losses and leave, others insist they've invested too much to abandon the community.

Of the 181 homes and 22 businesses in Oakville, 101 were destroyed and 92 sustained major damages.

When the Henderson County levee broke, water reached the eaves of the frame one-story frame building. As the water slowly was drained from Gulfport, the building — one of the first to greet residents and visitors entering the village — gradually disintegrated.

Other Gulfport residents and business owners are still working on their structures. To allow water to drain from the county, officials cut a hole in the levee near the Great River Bridge. The hole had to be patched hastily Sept. 13 when the river started rising after 8 inches of rain over three days. By then, the Corps threatened to decertify the levee altogether, which likely would seal the village's fate. The existing levee's base was constructed atop an old railroad bed.

However, local officials assured Gulfport's 750 residents in 1999 the levee was sturdy enough to withstand another historic flood. Consequently, only 28 property owners in the village were insured against the damage.

When FEMA certifies a levee, homes and businesses are not considered to be in a floodplain, and that means homeowners living there do not have to buy federal flood insurance. However, some FEMA floodplain maps are 20 years old and seriously outdated, based on old evaluations of levees and river conditions.

"They all told us, 'The levees are good. You can go ahead and build,' " said Juli Parks, who did not buy flood coverage because her bank no longer required it. "We had so much confidence in those levees."

The strength of the levees remains in question. During the height of the flooding, Corps of Engineers Gen. Michael Walsh told CNN the levees were designed to protected against storm swells — not severe, ongoing flooding.

Ultimately, the disaster cost more than surpassed that of 1993 Midwest floods that caused more than $20 billion in damage and 48 deaths. The Corps identified 48 levees protecting more than 285,000 acres of cropland from Dubuque to St. Louis that were under water or at high risk of flooding

On Oct. 3, 2008, President Bush signed a $700 billion federal bail-out bill with disaster relief tacked on for Midwest flood victims, including those in southeast Iowa and west-central Illinois.

"The Bible says the prayer of one man, God hears," Oakville's Brian Wiegand told a wire service reporter, while fortifying the Big Ditch levee. "Here's my prayer: I ask for the strength of God to fight this flood, and I ask for the grace to accept whatever happens."