All eyes on Oquawka as river continues to advance

Michelle Anstett

Workers at the Oquawka Water Plant were using boats to get from their storage shed to the control center all day Tuesday.

The quarter-mile tree-lined road is normally paved. But, with major flooding taking over the area, it’s currently serving as a nice boat launching point.

“Everything’s holding up,” said one of the plant’s two full-time workers, Gary Marston. “We’re all under water up there (at the control center). You’ve got to respect that river.”

Ameren IP trucks made the drive out Illinois Route 164 around 11 a.m. Tuesday to shut off power to the plant. It now runs on a 2,500-gallon diesel generator.

“The last readings I saw, we were a little over one foot about the (1993) flood,” said Galesburg water superintendent Herb Heintz. “That extra flood got it too close to what can’t get wet. We would’ve been fine if it had stayed at the ‘93 flood level.”

During that flood, which had many area communities wading through significant water when the Mississippi River overflowed, power to the plant was not shut off.

The United States Coast Guard will have three boats in Oquawka on Wednesday morning, helping to transport diesel fuel from the bank to the generator. The Illinois Department of Transportation is providing fuel, in roughly 110-gallon increments, to keep the generator running.

Heintz said he thinks they will have to keep the generator running at least through Thursday.

Normally, the Oquawka Water Plant has only two men full-time, and both work during the day. Since flood waters creeped in, though, there have been at least six men at any given time, and the plant is staffed around the clock.

The staff gauge, which is used to manually read the river level, was long ago submerged under the flood waters. Marston said the best guess he could give at the current water level is to average the levels at Keithsburg and Gladstone. Water levels sank just a bit Tuesday after a levee at Gulfport broke, relieving some of the pressure on Oquawka’s levees.

But, the river is expected to continue to rise for most of the day, finally cresting well above previous flood levels before finally receding.

For Max Meyer, who lives just up Illinois Route 164 from the water plant, the little bit of water in the road was more than a little worrying.

“If it breaks, you can probably kiss this house goodbye,” he said, looking out toward the pile of sand across the road from his home. What used to be a great river-front view almost turned into a swimming pool around midnight on Tuesday.

The fire department awoke Meyer and his wife, Maude, when the levee developed a leak. “It’s a good thing they discovered it when they did because it washed in quite a way,” he stated. “If something happens, you ain’t going to go anywhere.”

Meyer sat on his front lawn with his dog Maggie for most of Tuesday afternoon, enjoying a pleasantly-breezy day. He owns a farm up on the bluff, he said, and it’s “too bad I didn’t have the sense to stay there.”

He and Maude moved into their house in 1979, and watched 15 years ago as flood waters creeped toward their door. But this time, it’s different.

If things get any worse, the couple may have to find other options. “We might have to resport to the car temporarily,” he said.

For the time being, though, Maude was helping to prepare meals for the workers and volunteers in town at Oquawka United Methodist Church. Volunteers there have been working since Sunday preparing both lunch and dinner for the roughly 250 workers.

Barb Lumbeck has been helping organize the effort at the church, and they have been assisted by Rosetta Baptist Church. The Eagle’s Club has also been making use of the church’s kitchen.

She said the feeding effort has grown exponentially with each day. Today, they will make about 2,000 loose-meat sandwiches for the workers in Oquawka, as well as about 700 workers in nearby Gladstone. Lumbeck and another woman began Tuesday evening cooking the 200 pounds of hamburger.

Back on Illinois Route 164, IDOT highway maintainer Dwight Pierce sat in his big orange truck, monitoring the already-leaking levee.

“I’ve been living in this truck since Thursday,” he said. Pierce estimates the Oquawka levee was one of the first to be erected, and once the leak developed, another 80 to 100 feet was added early Tuesday.

“We’ve got a little seepage up there,” he explained, gesturing toward the wet spot on the road. The water was running from the sandbags clear, which means the levee is in less danger of rupturing if the water were muddy. “If it (water) starts muddying up there, that means we’ve got boilage, and when we’ve got boilage, it (the levee) blows. We’re doing the best we can.”

As the afternoon wore on and the men at the water plant made more trips to and from their storage shed, they grew tired.

“I really never wanted to see this,” Heintz, who was in the Chicago suburbs during the 1993 flood, said. “When this goes down, we’ll just wait for the next one (flood). I hope this doesn’t happen every 15 years.”

Water levels


Flood stage: 14 feet

Water level at 1 p.m. Tuesday: 24.29 feet

Crest: 24.9 feet (Expected at 1 a.m. Wednesday)

Previous high water level: 24.15 feet (On July 9, 1993)


Flood stage: 14 feet

Water level at 7 a.m. Tuesday: 22.26 feet

Crest: 22.6 feet (Expected at 1 p.m. Wednesday)

Previous high water level: 21.54 feet (On July 10, 1993)

Michelle Anstett can be reached at