Tom Loewy: No time to rest amid flood waters

Tom Loewy

Russell Calkins didn’t sleep Tuesday night. Nor Wednesday morning.

Since Saturday, closing his eyes even for a few moments was a luxury the Galesburg city employee couldn’t afford.

The 49-year-old water production supervisor — along with men like Gary Marston Jr., Steve Erickson and John Pecsi — guarded Galesburg’s pumping station in Oquawka as flood waters from in and around the Mississippi River rose to record levels.

“There was no time for sleep,” Calkins said. “We had to make checks every 30 to 45 minutes to make sure the sump pumps were working and that we kept the seep levels where they needed to be.”

Marston didn’t get much sleep either.

“I slept for four hours,” Calkins’ partner at the pumping station said. “I know it was Monday night into Tuesday morning. There hasn’t been any sleep since then.”

Calkins, Marston and the rest of the workers didn’t show any signs of sleep deprivation. They cracked jokes and patiently answered questions Wednesday morning.

Calkins did admit he thought some cracks were starting to show. It was only natural.

“It’s been tough,” he said. “The hours are long and the stress levels are high because of the conditions we are in.”

The men faced long odds at 11 p.m. Monday — after AmerenIP was forced to cut power to the station out of concern the water would cause grave damage to the power supply near the pumping station.

Calkins and his crew kept the pumping station running by using a 1,000 horsepower diesel-powered generator. All the water and the electricity the generator produced made for a dangerous situation.

Another challenge was keeping the flood waters out of the pumping station’s Ranney well. The well was actually below the level of the flood water and two sump pumps had to be kept in perpetual motion to keep the unwanted water out. The Ranney well was accessible only by boat.

“We also ran pumps in the chlorine room and the basement of the control room,” Calkins said. “We had to keep the water level down. We used two guys operating the sump pump in the chlorine room manually operating the sump pumps all night.”

While the pumping station crew worked through the night, they got some good news in the morning.

“The water level was down eight inches and dropped another inch this morning,” Calkins said. “That helped us out. It was probably because of the levee breaking in Gulfport, so it’s hard to feel too good about it.

“That’s how this flood has gone. One town’s good fortune is another town’s misfortune.”

Calkins received some more good news at 10 a.m. Wednesday after working the phones for an hour.

“Tentatively, it looks like Ameren will be able to put us back on the grid,” he said. “We might be able to do it at around noon.”

The water production supervisor hedged his bets. An hour after the call from Ameren, members of a Cincinnati-based U.S. Coast Guard unit showed up with three boats to help resupply the diesel generator. The guardsmen and Calkins’ crew ferried 2,500 gallons of diesel in five-gallon cans to the pumping station.

If the water suddenly rises again and Ameren has to shut down the power to the pumping station, it will stay online.

The crew out at the pumping station isn’t looking for any laurels.

“I’ve worked for the public since I graduated from high school,” Calkins said. “I feel a sense of responsibility to this place — and the other guys do, too.

“They wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the responsibility they feel for the place and for the people of Galesburg. It’s hard to get them to go home and get some sleep.”

Along with the tale of long days bleeding into endless nights and back again, the crew at the pumping station will have one humorous tale to tell when they finally get a chance to go home.

“Some of the guys rescued a pig,” Pecsi said. “It was barely swimming, keeping its head above the water and Weezy pulled him out by his ears. We heard a hog confinement in Oakville, Iowa, had 3,000 pigs swept away.

“If it came from there, it swam a long way.”

Erickson answers to the nickname Weezy. He explained.

“I pulled him up by his ears and we pulled it into shore,” he said. “I don’t know where that pig came from, but it could barely stand when we got him in.

“That was one tired pig.”

The tired crew out at the pumping station shared a laugh.

Tom Loewy can be reached at or (309) 343-7181, Ext. 256.