Iowa flooding a toxic threat, officials say

River towns bracing for next round

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Allen G. Breed
Associated Press / June 17, 2008

OAKVILLE, Iowa - The flood waters that deluged much of Iowa have done more than knock out drinking water and destroy homes. They have also spread a noxious brew of sewage, farm chemicals, and fuel that could sicken anyone who wades in.

Bob Lanz used a 22-foot aluminum flatboat yesterday to navigate through downtown Oakville, where water reeked of pig feces and diesel fuel.

"You can hardly stand it," Lanz said as he surveyed what remained of his family's hog farm. "It's strong."

LeRoy Lippert, chairman of emergency management and homeland security in nearby Des Moines County, warned people to avoid the flood waters: "If you drink this water and live, tell me about it. You have no idea. It is very, very wise to stay out of it. It's as dangerous as anything."

As some residents of Iowa's flooded towns began cleaning up, others braced for new flooding risks, particularly in southeastern Iowa along the Mississippi River.

The federal government predicts that 27 levees could overflow along the Mississippi River if the weather forecast is on the mark and a massive sandbagging effort fails to raise the levees.

Officials are placing millions of sandbags on top of the levees along the river in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri to prevent overflowing.

In Des Moines County, where the Mississippi was expected to crest tomorrow, authorities had asked for a half-million sandbags.

"We have just begun to fight," Iowa Governor Chet Culver said.

Two more deaths were reported yesterday, including a woman whose car was hit by a National Guard truck, bringing the state's death toll to five.

The American Red Cross said its disaster relief fund has been spent and the agency is borrowing money to help flood victims throughout the Midwest.

In the college town of Iowa City, damage appeared limited. About 400 homes took on water Sunday, and 16 University of Iowa buildings sustained flood damage during the weekend. But the town's levees were holding and the Iowa River was falling.

In northeast Missouri communities along the Mississippi, armies of Mennonites and Amish worked sandbag lines with convicted felons, college students, and other volunteers in a race to beat the rising river. The Mississippi was forecast to crest in the area by mid- to late-week.

"Today is our critical day; we need to get it done," said Monica Heaton, spokeswoman for Canton's emergency operations center.

In La Grange, Mo., a town of 1,000 people without a levee, City Hall was evacuated and about 50 residents left their homes after Main Street and 20 homes flooded, City Administrator Mark Campbell said. The tiny town of Alexandria, just south Iowa, abandoned sandbagging efforts and evacuated.

In Cedar Rapids, hazardous conditions forced officials to stop taking residents into homes where the water had receded. Broken gas lines, sinkholes, and structural problems with homes made conditions unsafe, said Dave Koch, a city spokesman.

Warnings about the dangers of walking in the polluted water prompted hundreds of people to line up at a downtown clinic Sunday for free tetanus shots.

Teresa Schirm wore latex gloves as she stood ankle-deep in smelly brown water in her garage in Cedar Rapids.

"You can see the oil on top of the water," she said. "But when you're trying to salvage what little you have left, you do it. I don't know what else to do."

All manner of refuse could be seen floating down the Cedar River - 55-gallon drums labeled "corrosive," propane tanks, wooden fences, and railroad ties. Dead birds and fish dotted the city's First Avenue Bridge.

A few blocks away, a paint store had its windows blown out. A line indicating the high-water mark could be seen about 8 feet above the floor. At the gas station next door, strong currents had knocked over two pumps.

Ken Sharp, environmental health director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, acknowledged that the flood waters had the potential to make people sick. But he said the sheer volume of water can dilute hazardous substances.

The flooding also raised concerns of contamination in rural wells, said G. Richard Olds, professor and chairman of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

"For rural folks, it's going to be hard to know if their water's safe or not," he said.

Adding to the misery were mosquitoes, which can breed rapidly in the standing water.

Greg Burg, assistant director of undergraduate biology at the University of Kansas, said the flooding "adds that much more water where they could potentially lay eggs and have the eggs survive."

When the waters rose Sunday in Oakville, a town of 400, Bob Lanz and his family tried to move their pigs out of harm's way. But they could only save a few. Most of their 350 sows and their 800 piglets were lost.

The family ripped out canvas ventilation curtains in the barn so the pigs "could at least have a chance," said Logan Lanz, Bob Lanz's grandson. "They were screaming. They were on top of each other. We had some big sows in there. They're frantic, and they run you over."

He said the water was choked with dead piglets.

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