NEWS

Residents watch Rock, unsure of what’s next

Sadie Gurman

Photo gallery: Machesney families evacuate

A fickle, freezing Rock River frustrated officials Thursday as they fought to predict what would happen next.

Would floodwaters threaten more homes in Machesney Park? Would a warm-up move flood problems downstream? Would the miles of dense and jagged ice — the force behind Wednesday’s rising tide — ever break?

“With ice, things are so unpredictable,” Winnebago County Sheriff Dick Meyers said. “It’s kind of a wait-and-see issue right now.”

Deputies in squad cars, emergency responders, meteorologists and water-weary residents, studied the Rock River for signs of its next move. Seven families in a low-lying area of Machesney Park opted to evacuate their homes Wednesday, mostly because crews had shut off their utilities, village President Linda Vaughn said.

Vaughn said water crept into a few of the homes, though officials had not been able to tally the damage. With the future of the river in doubt, deputies remained available to help residents with sandbags.

Subfreezing temperatures that dropped as low as minus 10 degrees in the early morning hours kept the river steady in most places, officials said, but they were uncertain what would happen if the ice dams gave way or thawed.

“If it is sudden, it could cause flash flooding downstream,” said Paul Merzlock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Romeoville. “Hopefully, the channel will open more gradually, increasing river levels to where it is not going to cause a major flood downstream.”

The breakup

Suggestions to demolish the ice dams manually — either with explosives or boats — have been the subject of amateur debate since Wednesday afternoon, when the waters escaped their banks and flowed onto Shore Drive. But a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday that there was little that could be done to speed up the natural process.

“There is absolutely nothing you can do about it unless you want to risk your life,” Ron Fournier said. Blasting the ice with dynamite won’t work, he said, because “the ice would just close right back up once the hole was gone.”

Sending a boat on the craggy river terrain won’t work either, he said.

“You’d probably drown because the ice would crush the boat,” Fournier said.

Melting the river with some external heat source also is a no-go, Fournier said, because “there’s no source of heat.”

The ice could start to melt Sunday afternoon or at the start of the workweek, when 40-degree weather is forecast to arrive, Merzlock said. There’s also a chance of rain, which could dislodge some of the ice.

That could cause flooding problems downstream, though it’s unknown whether it will, Merzlock said.

“It’s just like shoving a clog through your drain,” he said.

Residents check damage

Pete Leggero, 29, a Shore Drive and Marquette Road resident who fled his home Wednesday night as the waters approached, returned Thursday to find the house and yard surrounded by 6 to 8 inches of solid ice.

Aware that a thaw could be coming as early as Monday when temperatures rise, Leggero said he too does not know what to expect.

“Hopefully, when it does melt, it won’t come inside,” he said.

One thing he is not worried about is looters, he said.

“I think it’s too cold for that. Plus the sheriff’s department has been all over the place.”

Sunny Challiech, a Marquette Road residence and mechanic, returned to his house to find two of three vehicles in the driveway encased in ice halfway up the wheel wells.

Challiech stood in his garage and adjoining laundry room and pointed out where water was a foot deep 24 hours earlier.

“The water went over the top of the sandbags and into the house. I lost a lot of things. I lost my tools, my washer and dryer, and my refrigerator.”

“I called my landlord, but he said there’s nothing he can do. He said he does not have insurance.”

Authorities expanded the barricade around the flooded area, to Shore Drive from North Park Road to Wilson Avenue and east to Waterview Road, Vaughn said. City leaders asked that garbage containers be put at the barricades for residents who were expecting trash pickup today, as trucks won’t be able to get into the flooded areas.

City officials met Thursday to discuss the immediate challenges of the flood, Vaughn said, but they had not begun to discuss a larger question of whether to declare the city a disaster area.

“We haven’t made a decision yet because we don’t know the extent of the damage,” Vaughn said. Authorities will need to wait until the water recedes before they know that, she said.

The Emergency Services Disaster Agency will give displaced residents an “all-clear” when it is safe for them to return, director Dennis Lolli said, but he was unsure when that would be, as ice jams cause water levels to fluctuate.

The weather service issued a flood warning for the southeastern part of Winnebago County until 6:30 p.m. today and was reporting minor flooding along Y Boulevard just north of Whitman Street. Flooding is also possible south and east of Country Club Beach Road, according to the weather service.

A flood advisory was issued in Rockton for the Rock River, which was rising Thursday. The river’s stage was 7.2 feet Thursday morning; flood stage is 10 feet, the weather service reported, adding that the river would likely rise to 8.8 feet by this afternoon.

Health at stake

The Winnebago County Health Department warned residents who rely on private well water and have been affected by Machesney Park floods that their water might be contaminated.

“If you’re in an area with flooding and your well head has been submerged, you have to assume that your water is unsafe to drink until you have it tested,” said Erich Redschlag, the Health Department’s groundwater protection coordinator.

The testing does not apply to residents who rely on public water, he said.

Bacteria tests can be picked up at the Winnebago County Health Department. For information about the tests, call 815-720-4141.

Storm water that has flooded streets and driveways might also be contaminated, Redschlag said.

If storm run-off comes in contact with skin or an open wound, wash with soap and hot water. Pay attention to open sores as they could become infected, he said.

Staff writer Sadie Gurman can be reached at 815-987-1389 or sgurman@rrstar.com.