Trial by Deluge

updated 07/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"I know the experts are saying we've seen the worst of it," said a military policeman in Des Moines, when skies had cleared for the first time in a week and a half. "But then, the experts never predicted this."

Midwesterners have reason to be cautious. The worst floods in U.S. history have inundated 6.5 million acres of cropland—roughly the equivalent of turning Rhode Island into a lake—and caused an estimated $5 billion worth of damage in eight slates. Although low-lying areas along a 650-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Missouri were hardest hit, disaster spread as far as Des Moines, more than 150 miles west. The surging Des Moines and Raccoon rivers swamped the city on July 11, leaving 250,000 without drinking water; it could be a month before tap water is safe. The deluge, says Iowa governor Terry Branstad, is "the worst natural disaster we've ever had."

As often happens, the worst of times brought out some of the best in people. When it came to shoring up levees, saving a few possessions or rescuing the family pet, thousands of flood victims found they could count on the kindness of strangers. Here are three such stories from the flood of '93.

ILLINOIS RADIO STATION BECOMES LIFELINE FOR LISTENERS

"This is war," declares Leo Henning, 43, director of operations at Quincy, Ill., radio station WGEM. "It's just like CNN with the Gulf War. When this happens, everyone drops what they're doing and everybody is a newsman."

Since a July 1 torrent brought six inches of rain in six hours to Quincy and its environs, the family-owned station, heard in Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, has spared no expense to provide the most comprehensive flood coverage in the area. Its round-the-clock Flood watch '93 offers crest predictions, weather forecasts and evacuation notices put out by a nearly exhausted stall, including Henning, who has been catching only two to three hours of sleep as he juggles field reporting with other station duties. Although Quincy—a city of about 40,000 on the bluffs of the Mississippi 100 miles north of St. Louis—is not in grave danger, surrounding farms and towns are.

Perhaps the station's most vital service has been opening its phone lines so that listeners can share information and make pleas for help. One waterlogged afternoon, the switchboard is lit up like a pinball machine. An elderly woman, fearing a levee break will cause her house to be flooded, asks for help to move her belongings. Within minutes, a second woman phones to say she'll be right over. Another listener rings for straw to absorb excess water on nearby levees. The next caller says he can supply some. When the station announces that National Guardsmen working on the water-soaked levees need dry socks, a local discount store comes through with 300 pairs.

Among the many grateful WGEM listeners is Alex House, 35. He is coordinating dozens of volunteers working to help shore up the northern section of the Sny levee, three miles from the 1,600-acre grain and hog farm that has been in his family for four generations. If the levee goes, House and Ken Crim, 46, the farmer who works the land, stand to lose an investment of more than $200,000 in their crop of corn and beans, as well as precious topsoil. House, Crim and the volunteers had been filling their own sandbags until hearing the station announce that the city of Quincy could provide already-bagged sand. "I called in," House says. "Within an hour, it was almost total chaos here because there were so many dump trucks with sandbags."

"The greatest part of this story is the cooperative effort of these people," says WGEM announcer Bob Turek, 63, who has been putting in 12-to 14-hour days with his morning show partner Rich Cain, 32. "We're covering the story of the century."

COME HELL AND HIGH WATER, A COUPLE TAKE THE PLUNGE

Maybe Kim Flieg and Scott Peters should have pledged to love each other for wetter or worse. The 22-year-old couple's scheduled wedding July 10 at the First Baptist Church near their hometown of Festus, Mo., 30 miles south of St. Louis, coincided with the arrival of six feet of Mississippi floodwater that lapped near the front door of the redbrick building. But the pair managed to get hitched with tin feel, thanks to the efforts of 250 volunteers, some of whom kept sandbagging right through the ceremony. Scott's grand-father Warren Peters, 67, worked 23 hours straight pumping out the church basement and stacking sandbags. "It's important to us to be able to do a wedding like this," says minister Richard Adams, who officiated. "It shows people that everything's not out of control."

The bridal party managed to keep their humor dry too. Stepping out the church door after the ceremony, the couple found—instead of the usual limo—an aluminum canoe, decked in their burgundy-and-mauve wedding colors, tethered to a railing. "Everyone was surprised—especially the bride," says the groom's father, Charles Peters, whose idea it was. "Her mouth dropped wide open."

A MISSOURI GRANDMA GAMELY STANDS HER SOGGY GROUND

It'll take more than rising waters to move pipe-smoking grandmother Wyona Ramsey, 55, from her mobile home. The way Ramsey sees it, she and her cat, Midnight, have no reason to leave the comforts of their St. Charles, Mo., home, modest though they may be. Her four-room quarters—which now stand in two to three feet of water from the nearby Missouri River—have drinking water, electricity and a microwave to heat her stock of meat and canned vegetables. There are also good neighbors in the River front Mobile Home Village, where residents of six of the 18 homes remain despite authorities' urging to head for higher ground. "If I need anything, I just turn on the porch light and somebody comes out," says Ramsey. The light is a signal to friends like Joan Townshend, who regularly fetches Ramsey's groceries and mail, even when the Missouri is confined to its banks.

In fact, Ramsey is getting even better service these days than usual—courtesy of the St. Charles police and fire departments. Because of the water, firefighters in hip boots have been pushing residents who ask for help to and from dry land in canoes. The other afternoon, Ramsey used this water taxi to visit with some of her neighbors. "I'm planning to stay here until I die," she says, firing up her pipe. "Or until I win the lottery."

PAM LAMBERT
LUCHINA FISHER in Quincy and MARY HARRISON in St. Charles

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