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Mississippi River flooding prompts evacuations, sandbagging

Huge snowpack that began to quickly melt leading to near-record river levels
Workers lift a tarp over a HESCO sand barrier along River Drive in Davenport, Iowa, as the city prepares for flooding from the Mississippi River, Tuesday, April 25, 2023. (Nikos Frazier/Quad City Times via AP)

Communities along the Upper Mississippi River scrambled Wednesday as the always-massive river swelled to near-record levels, forcing some to evacuate while others downstream stacked sandbag walls and closed off flood-prone areas.

The river has grown so large because of a huge snowpack in northern Minnesota that began to quickly melt last week because of rising temperatures.

A small number of people had to leave their homes in Wisconsin as the river kept rising. Others stacked sandbags in the small community of Buffalo, Iowa, in anticipation of flooding this weekend and early next week.

The Mississippi was expected to be especially high along parts of Wisconsin and to crest Wednesday or early Thursday in La Crosse. In Iowa, forecasts predict the river will reach the third-highest level ever recorded when it crests Saturday about 160 miles to the south in Davenport, Iowa.

Improved floodwalls and other temporary measures should prevent significant problems, but crews were constantly monitoring the river, officials in the Iowa cities of Dubuque, Davenport and Burlington said. Forecasts call for only a chance of light showers later in the week.

The river already flooded low-lying parks and streets in La Crosse, a city of 50,000, by Wednesday. One of the hardest-hit communities has been Campbell, a nearby town of about 4,000 people on French Island that lies in the Mississippi and Black rivers just west of the city.

The far north end of the island is underwater, with people using canoes to reach their homes, Campbell Fire Chief Nate Melby said Wednesday. Pumps supplied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are protecting 70 homes on the island’s low-lying south end.

Melby estimated about a half-dozen people have decided to evacuate after the rising waters forced emergency workers to cut power and gas to their homes. Emergency officials have not issued mandatory evacuation orders, though, he said.

“We’re putting up a good fight,” Melby said. “We’re hanging in there.”

Amy Werner, who lives on the northern tip of French Island, has been using six pumps to remove river water from a crawl space. Werner, whose husband is in Africa, said it’s been a 24-hour-a-day battle, with friends and her parents taking turns monitoring the pumps during the nights.

She estimated the pumps are removing 25,000 to 30,000 gallons of water per hour.

“It’s pretty stressful,” Werner said. “It’s bubbling up from the ground. I’ve been living my life by every hour for about 10 days now, and it’s not over yet. (But) so far we’re holding our own.”

About 60 miles (100 kilometers) downriver at Prairie du Chien, the Mississippi was a little more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) above flood stage Wednesday morning. The water was expected to continue rising each day until Saturday, when it’s expected to crest at just under 25 feet (7 meters). The record high was 25 feet, 3 inches (7.7 meters) in April 1965.

Video footage shot by WKBT-TV on Tuesday showed water at least a foot deep covering city streets and yards.

Crawford County Emergency Management Specialist Marc Myhre said that some families have evacuated and are staying with other family members, but as of Tuesday officials hadn’t issued mandatory evacuation orders. A message left at the county emergency management offices on Wednesday morning wasn’t immediately returned.

Crews in Dubuque had closed 13 of the city’s 17 floodgates and started up four permanent pumping stations and three temporary pumps to suck water over the floodwall and back into the river by Wednesday.

“Now we’ve got to get through the next three or four days of rain, but I think we will be in good shape,” Dubuque Public Works Director John Klostermann told the Des Moines Register.

Downstream, officials in Davenport and Bettendorf have closed roads near the river, and Davenport workers set up temporary sand-filled barriers to protect downtown. In 2019, barriers failed and allowed water to rush into parts of downtown, but officials said this time the barrier will be much deeper and higher.

In the small riverfront community of Buffalo, residents have started building walls of sandbags, wary after significant flooding when the river reached record highs a few years ago.

“What happened in 2019 kind of snuck up on us,” resident Jacob Klaman told the Quad-City Times during a break from stacking sandbags Tuesday. “We are definitely going to be ready this year.”

—Scott Mcfetridge And Todd Richmond, The Associated Press

READ MORE: Pumping Mississippi River water west: solution or dream?

CPKC railroad workers line a concrete barrier along River Drive with sandbags and a plastic tarp as the city prepares for flooding along the Mississippi River, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. (Nikos Frazier/Quad City Times via AP)