A Raging River Recedes in Defeat

August 27, 2008 12:27 PM

To prepare for high water, Scott Hoerr (photo) and other drainage district members and volunteers raised levees and built "terraces” in the sand.                                               &nb​sp;                        &nb​sp;         Photos by author

For farmers inside Mississippi River levee districts, the battle to save their crops and homes during last June's flooding began quietly, as they watched the river and studied reports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Gradually, their alert status escalated, until it reached a fever pitch.
"When heavy rain began falling in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area, we knew the water was coming here,” says Roger Sutter, president of the Fabius River Drainage District, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, across the river from Quincy, Ill.
In Sutter's district, 14,000 acres of farmland is protected by 17 miles of levees—a sand levee (actually a dirt core with sand on top of it) along the Mississippi and earthen levees along Durgens Creek to the north and the Fabius River on the south. For 10 tense days, Sutter and his five board members checked the levees at least twice a day.
On June 14, when the Corps predicted a record crest of 32.4', "we went into emergency flood-fighting mode,” Sutter says. For farmers like him, who live in the bottomland, that required moving livestock, grain, machinery and household furnishings to higher ground, as they organized to fight the rising waters.     
A call for volunteers went out from the Apostolic Christian Church in Taylor, Mo., where many of the district's farmers worship. The denomination has a tradition of rallying around its members when they need help.
The Taylor church had sent relief teams to help in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Hugo. And even as their parents battled to save their levees, children of church members departed on a mission to Mexico, where the church supports an orphanage.
"Church members came from all over the country—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Connecticut,” recalls Taylor farmer Scott Hoerr.
One volunteer—Indianapolis kindergarten teacher Ron Bollier—told the Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper that he learned of the district's plight from an e-mail asking him to pray for those affected by the flooding in the Midwest. "It's hard to pray and not do something about it,” he said. So he and his two sons came to help.
"Many others came, too,” Hoerr says. "The response of the people of Quincy was heartwarming.” Among the volunteers were employees of Knapheide Manufacturing Company, the Quincy-based manufacturer of truck bodies, including Harold Knapheide III, president and CEO.
The mayor of Quincy organized efforts to fill sandbags, which were transported to the levee by trucks, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) or whatever it took to navigate soggy or flooded bottomland. The National Guard provided vehicles that could run through water to reach the levees.
Besides labor, donations ranged from food to straw to tick spray, gloves, hats and even ATVs, dropped off by a dealer. A Quincy couple, Clee and Rose Tandy, offered the use of a building for a headquarters site.
The district's first task was to raise the height of the levees from 30.5' to 34'. Along the Mississippi levee, bulldozer drivers pushed up more sand.


Left: Farmer Scott Hoerr (orange shirt) visits with volunteers as they scatter straw and build terraces on a levee.
Above: Volunteers from many states are briefed by Kent Heimer before heading out to a levee.


Capping the levees. Then volunteers "capped” all three levees with sandbags, which they wrapped in plastic sheeting. "We couldn't reach the levees with trucks,” Hoerr says. "We probably had 80 Gators and four-wheelers hauling in sandbags.”
As the Mississippi rose, fell and rose again, the levees had to be constantly monitored for boils and seepage. "Sand levees ‘weep,'” Hoerr explains. "When water comes through, the trick is to get it off the levee as quickly as possible, so it doesn't erode the sand. It's erosion that causes a sand levee to break.”
To prevent erosion, volunteers scattered straw on the sides of the levee (like mulching a newly seeded landscape planting). When seepage was detected, they built terraces (resembling the ones used on farmland) in the sand. The terraces channeled water to chutes made of plastic sheeting, which carried it safely to the base of the levee. The ground inside the levee became soft and soupy to walk in, but erosion was averted.
When "boils” were discovered—water bubbling through a sand levee, rather than slowly seeping—volunteers stabilized the water flow with sandbags and built plastic-lined channels for the water to flow to the bottom of the levee.

Left: The Hoerr family—Scott, wife Anna and daughter Aubrey—cross an almost-flooded trestle to check the status of a field in another district.
Below: "Boils,” in which water bubbles through a sand levee, are contained with sandbag structures.

During daylight hours, volunteers carried straw bales and sandbags, scattering the straw and building terraces. At night, experienced farmers walked the levees, looking for problems.
"Levee monitors walk because they have to get where four-wheelers can't go,” Sutter says. "They have to be able to hear the sound of trickling water. You detect boils and weeping as much with your ears as with your eyes.”
Sutter, in charge of the operation, grabbed what sleep he could in a camper parked on the site. He got up each time shifts of levee monitors changed during the night so that he could hear their reports.
During the critical sandbagging operation, Hoerr slept 6½ hours in three days. That probably was typical of many of the district's farmers, who, unlike the volunteers, could not work in shifts and rest in between.
The 2,000 volunteers, who logged 34,000 hours of labor, had to be fed around the clock and housed. Ten people stayed at Hoerr's house, where his wife, Anna, washed clothes until she lost count of the loads. Like members of other farm families, she and their daughter, Aubrey (who was born during the 1993 flood, when Anna was taken to the hospital by helicopter), helped sandbag and worked at the headquarters.
On June 29, the river crested at 30.8'. The levees held—perhaps partly because some other levees broke, allowing the river level to drop.
"It was good to win one this time,” says Sutter, remembering 1993 when the levee broke. "We know others lost their levees, and their crops, homes and businesses. We pray for them and want to support them.”
By mid-July, 85% of the farmland in the district had dried out enough to be planted. And a group of Taylor church members went to Oakville, Iowa, where a levee had burst to help others recover from the flood.
The Fabius River Drainage District was spared from the flood of 2008 thanks to 3½" of sandbags—placed by an army of devoted volunteers and sustained by the tried-and-true farmer practice of building terraces.

You can email Darrell Smith at dsmith@farmjournal.com.

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