Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Drying out

     Last week's heavy rainfall caused flooding across the Northwest suburbs. The Chicago Botanic Garden was closed for a while—the entire place is one vast, flower-strewn retention pond. We stopped by Sunday afternoon and found it mostly dry and in fairly good shape—some limp and muddy hostas, a few trails and bridges closed off due to lingering floodwaters. It could have been much worse, such as at Highland Park Ford Lincoln, where more than 100 new and used cars, worth $5 million, were destroyed. Which called to mind this story, visiting ruined businesses downstate after the Great Mississippi Flood, nearly a quarter century ago. 

     ALTON, IL—Moving slowly, like astronauts in outer space, executives from the Bearing Headquarters Co. wade cautiously into knee-deep, yellow-green water and approach the front door of their office and warehouse.
     Gingerly, the door is pulled open and a wave of rancid humidity rolls out. John Decker, the branch manager, surveys the surreal, dimly lit scene Thursday of rows of shelving. The upper portions are stacked with piles of damp catalogs, soggy brochures and ruined records. Paper work floats in the water like seaweed.
     "Man, what a mess," he whispers.
     All over the Midwest as the floodwaters recede, people are beginning to tally the enormous cost of this unsurpassed natural disaster. Estimates are being offered, but the reality is that it will be months, if not years, before any reliable figure is attained. And the cost is rising - as floodwaters recede in some areas, they inundate others. The disaster is not over.
     Despite dramatic pictures of homes being crushed by the water, most damage is not caused by the water's impact, but by its ability to corrode and spoil.
     A pair of contractors accompany the Bearing Headquarters executives, to assess what it will take to undo the damage.
     "The office is a total loss; there is nothing there that can be saved, as far as I'm concerned," says Larry Colvin, an electrical contractor. He points his flashlight beam toward the ceiling of the 13,000-square-foot warehouse. "The moisture content in these fixtures - they're going to corrode. Look on the beams. It's rusting already."
     A general contractor pulls away a part of wall, showing how the insulation is soaked. It, too, must be replaced, as well as the floors, the shelving and many other parts of the building.
     Alton, a town of 33,000 north of St. Louis, is one of dozens of towns where the floodwaters caused serious infrastructure damage. Here, the tremendous pressure of the Mississippi River formed sinkholes and fissures in streets. Sewer lines burst and parking lots buckled. The levee did not break, as the people in Alton note with pride, but the river pushed its way in underground, sending geysers shooting out of Main Street.
     The mayor of Alton, Robert Towse, estimates that infrastructure damage to his town alone will be $ 5 million, and he calls the government's initial grant of $ 4.7 billion in Midwestern flood relief "a tenth" of what will eventually be needed.
     Water treatment facilities, electric plants, bridges and highways in several states were damaged by the flooding. Edwin Harper, president of the Association of American Railroads, estimates that it will take $ 250 million just to replace or repair submerged train tracks, but he admits that it is just a guess.
      Then there is lost business. Next door and up the hill from Bearing Headquarters is Tri-City Nissan Mazda. The bearing company, which moved its costly bearings out before it was deluged last week, is operating from scattered temporary locations, but Tri-City will not be back in business for weeks.
     Conn-Agra, the big silage concern, juts out of flooded downtown Alton like a mountainous island. Its 200 employees are lucky, however: Their salaries are being paid, and they are being sent out to help in the cleanup effort around the city.
     The six employees of Hudson's Jewelry Store have not been paid since July 13, when the store was last open. But clerk Matt Contarino shows up as a volunteer to oversee pumps in the basement.
     Tourist spots have been hit hard. While traffic to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is so heavy the Park Service had to bring in extra rangers to help, communities such as St. Genevieve, Mo., a historic town about 50 miles downriver from St. Louis that was founded by the French in 1735, have no tourists during prime season.
      In Illinois, officials monitoring the state's $ 15 billion a year tourist industry estimate it is down at least 70 percent in the western portion of the state.
     Thousands of private homes were also destroyed or seriously damaged. In Grafton, 15 miles upriver from Alton, 900 of the 1,000 residents have been displaced from their homes - some of which were totally submerged.
     Tooling through downtown Grafton in a boat used to ferry residents, observing the city's houses submerged to the roofline, resident Vern Rominski ponders the question of how much it will cost to clean up the city, and how long it will take. He squints into the rain which is still somehow, incredibly, coming down hard.
     "I don't think they'll know until the waters go down, son," he says.

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 9, 1993

Chicago Botanic Garden, July 16, 2017


  1. nova was documenting the construction of a new bridge across the Mississippi at Alton for a year prior to the coming of this flood. so they were there as the water began to rise. the bridge was on time and on budget til nature spit on their plans. great episode . thanks for the reminder of the century flood.

  2. I grew up near Alton, and saw the aftermath of the flood. I was sure that Grafton would never recover, built as it is on the shoreline of a river that floods with regularity. It is now a resort town, flooded with visitors during the summer, countless folks visiting wineries and breweries, restaurants and bars that now line the shore. This is why some of us are rich and some of us aren't. I saw heartache, the monied class saw opportunity. Live and don't learn.

  3. It was around that time that flooding brought Asian Carp into the river. That's a story for the history books.

  4. I'm glad you went to check out the Botanic Garden, NS. I tried a couple times to google photos of the flooding there, but all I could find were TV aerial shots of lots of water. Your on-the-ground perspective, from which you can actually tell some of what's underwater is what I was curious to see. So, thanks!


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