Mississippi River rising faster than level of sandbags

Bruce Rushton

Piles of sand atop Mississippi River levees and 30 shovels, some brand new, sitting in an equipment shed at the Shaffer farm a few miles away tell the story.

“We’ve been so short of volunteers, we’ve had to change our tactics,” said Tony Slater, an Adams County incident commander who usually supervises paramedics.

Walls of sandbags would be better than piles of loose sand topped with plastic, Slater allows, but there aren’t enough volunteers, and so there aren’t enough sandbags. That’s why crews have been piling up sand, covering it with straw and plastic and hoping for the best.

Really, there isn’t enough time — this flood, unlike the epic flood of 1993, came all of a sudden. But it carries the same threat of devastation. The river at Quincy just a few miles from the farm had reached 28.7 feet by Monday afternoon and is expected to crest at 31.9 feet on Friday, less than 6 inches below the record set 15 years ago.

Less than a week ago, no one knew this kind of trouble was coming. Karen Shaffer, whose family owns this farm, has hardly slept since Wednesday, when sandbagging operations began. Sign-in sheets on Monday afternoon showed that 125 folks had pitched in, but that’s a conservative number, Shaffer said.

“A lot of people don’t sign in,” Shaffer said. “The inmates don’t. The National Guard doesn’t. ”

But still, there are not enough. Each night, farmers with spotlights and ATVs patrol the levees, looking for breaks. And Shaffer is worried, enough that she moved the freezer from the farm’s home to higher ground on Monday. At stake are 750 acres of corn and soybeans.

“If we lose it, we’re going to cry,” Shaffer said.

The Shaffer farm survived the crest in 1993, but the levee broke as the river receded, sending water into the second story of the farm’s home. This time, Shaffer professes hope, even as she asks what day it is.

“What is today, Monday?” she asks. “I can’t remember. I’m losing track of days.”

Slater won’t say what he thinks will happen.

“No comment,” he said.

Springfield. St. Louis. Texas. New Mexico. New Jersey. Oklahoma. Texas. England.

Volunteers, more than 1,000 a day, have come from across the United States, even the world, to help fill sandbags at the Oakley-Lindsay Center in downtown Quincy, where “Please Help Sandbag Here” has replaced advertisements for home shows and concerts on the civic center’s electronic sign.

One group of volunteers came from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is now largely underwater, said Carla Gosney, who is usually director of RSVP for John Wood Community College but has been helping coordinate flood volunteers since last week.

“They said ‘Our community’s gone; we’re coming here to help you guys,’” Gosney said. “We had people here in town on the weekend for a wedding, and they came back to sandbag. It’s just amazing.”

Quincy Mayor John Spring remains optimistic, even though a bridge to Missouri was closed Friday, forcing all traffic over the Mississippi onto one bridge that is usually reserved for eastbound vehicles. By Monday, the western end of the closed bridge was submerged. Only the tops of riverside trees on the eastern shore were visible.

“We’re going to be in good shape,” Spring predicted. “We’ve got a lot of experience.”

Amish men with beards, suspenders and fedora-style hats filled sandbags side-by-side with youngsters in Chicago Cubs T-shirts at the civic center. Several said they had nothing to lose. But they came anyway.

“We knew they needed help, so we volunteered to help,” explained David Yoder, a dairy farmer from Clayton, whose cows aren’t in any danger. More than a dozen townsfolk traveled 30 miles to Quincy with him, Yoder said.

It’s hard work — ask John Howser of Quincy, who filled sandbags with two grandsons inside the civic center.

“It was hotter in ’93 because we did it outside,” Howser said. “I was 45 then. I’m 60 now.”

Howser, a maintenance supervisor at John Wood Community College, wasn’t working for free; his employer is paying staff regular salary for up to 12 hours per day of work to combat the flood. Howser wasn’t sure how long he’d last.

“Until I can’t shovel no more,” he said.

There was plenty to eat and drink. Midwest Grocery Supply donated food. Starbucks gave coffee. Lowes provided shovels and gloves. Hamburgers came from Burger King. Budweiser supplied water.

Riverside, there was plenty of work tossing sandbags and spreading straw amid mud and mosquitoes. But duty in the Quincy area was considerably better than stints in Baghdad or Afghanistan, according to National Guardsman mobilized to fight the flood.

Still, 1st Lt. Michael McGarrigle of the 404th Chemical Brigade from the Chicago area wasn’t prepared for his first climb atop a levee.

“I expected to see the river down below,” McGarrigle said. “I didn’t expect to see it at eye level.”

McGarrigle was one of 500 Illinois Guard members who’ve been called to the Mississippi. His unit was on the firing range in Marseilles, shooting M-16s, when the call came. By Sunday night, they were in Quincy.

“In two days, we’ve traversed the entire state of Illinois,” McGarrigle said.

Jim Pitchford, Macoupin County emergency management coordinator who was called in to help, can only hope for the best. All that sand piled on top of levees isn’t the best defense, he acknowledged.

“Tell us how to build one faster,” he said. “We had a month to prepare for it in ’93.

“This time, we had a week.”

Bruce Rushton can be reached at (217) 788-1542. 

Want to help?

Don’t bother calling. Just come.

Emergency management officials in Quincy say there’s plenty of work for folks who want to help keep the Mississippi River from spilling over levees. Folks with strong backs can shovel sand. Folks with weaker backs can hold sandbags open. Folks with no backs at all can do paperwork or help with food.

Carla Gosney, volunteer coordinator, said anyone wishing to help with the floods should report to the Oakley-Lindsay Center at 300 Civic Center Plaza in downtown Quincy.

“We’re here from 6 in the morning until whatever at night,” Gosney said.

Road closures

For an updated list of state highways with closures in effect, go to: The closure information also is available by phone at 1-800-452-IDOT (4368).