National Geographic : 1994 Jan
they filled sandbags and stacked them, mile after mile, on top of the Nutwood Levee to build it higher. Usually the levee stands 21 feet above the river, but by mid-July water was licking the top. National Guardsmen pitched in to help, as did local housewives, farmers, children, retired folks, businessmen, and inmates from a nearby correctional center. Trucks and all-terrain vehicles would have been a big help hauling sandbags to critical spots on the levee, but they stood idly by: The earth was so saturated that engineers feared the vehicles' weight would cause the levee to collapse. It was slow, strenuous going. "I did more physical work yesterday than I've done since I did a 26-mile road march in the Marine Corps," said Capt. Pat Smallwood of the Illinois National Guard. He looked over his company, sweating in the sun. "These people are really kicking butt. No whining, no complaining." On the other side of the river, where there was no levee, people battled block by block, building by building, trying to keep the river at bay. The Hardin Drive-In, a local restaurant, looked like a bunker. It was surround ed by water and by sandbags that almost reached the roof. I could see some one scurrying around inside, monitoring the water pumps that pushed the river back out faster than it seeped in. "We've already lost the nursing home, the medical center, and the grain elevator," Mayor Bill Horman told me. "Now we're just trying to keep the secondary roads open so people can get out of the county." To that end, orange trucks from the Illinois Department of Transporta tion barreled into town, dumping tons of crushed stone on low-lying roads to elevate them and keep them dry. Park Street, one of the main routes out of town, was more than six feet high. Concerned that the rising river might contaminate the town's well, the Calhoun County Health Department instructed people to boil their tap water before using it. Tetanus shots were recommended too; the river had run into sewers, which backed up through toilets and bathtubs, down the halls, and out into the streets. "We're telling parents to keep their kids out of the water, but it's so invit ing when it's so hot," said nurse Judy Zahrli, who was giving free tetanus shots in the hallway outside the school cafeteria. Inside, local women served home-cooked meals, brought from all over Calhoun County, to 1,500 people a day. Gena Sievers brought her barbecued pork; Evie Nolte made scalloped potatoes; the pickled beets and Bob Ernst calls home (opposite) from McBride, Missouri, as water rolls toward town from a busted levee ten miles away. McBride was still dry (lower left) ten hours after the break, but by 5 p.m. the water had arrived. "It's a total loss," says Bud Hol land of his home (below, at far right), which eventually filled with 12 feet of water. "I figured on spending the rest of my life there, but it didn't take the river long to change my mind."