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As spring rains arrive amid the coronavirus crisis, towns prep for flooding: ‘Last year was really scary. You never know what the river is going to do.’

In Rock Island, public works crews are staggering their hours. In central Illinois, dredging work continues at the confluence of the Illinois and Sangamon rivers, though the main focus has been on making sure local restaurants in the river town of Beardstown are able to weather the coronavirus crisis. In Chester, on the Mississippi River south of St. Louis, the river already is at flood stage, affecting downtown’s Water Street. But levels are nowhere near where they were last summer, and the river is expected to drop in coming days.

Throughout the state, with the ramifications of coronavirus shutdowns changing life for Illinois communities large and small, the preparations for spring flooding, which ravaged large swaths of the state last year, have continued despite the abnormal circumstances. As local, state and federal agencies scramble to react to the public health needs of COVID-19, cities and towns throughout Illinois must also keep one eye on the weather forecast and river levels.

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Spring rains, arriving in earnest throughout much of the region in recent days, will not wait for the coronavirus. Public works departments, emergency management officials and those who live in Midwestern communities along the Mississippi, Illinois and smaller regional rivers are continuing to prepare if, or when, water levels rise again.

In mid-march, the National Weather Service’s spring flood outlook forecast that the southern Great Lakes and Midwest will likely see above normal precipitation for the April through June period.

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“This unfortunately includes the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio River basins,” the weather service reported. “These precipitation probabilities have increased from previous outlooks.”

The good news, said Bob Smerbeck, senior meteorologist with Accuweather.com, is that this spring likely will be drier throughout the Midwest compared with the “perfect storm” of 2019 that started with a snowy winter in the upper Great Plains, followed by big rains in March and a dip in the jet stream that fueled lots of moisture for weeks throughout the Mississippi River Valley.

“That pattern was relentless,” Smerbeck said. “Last year, everything went wrong. ... Although we will see some flooding this year, we don’t think it’ll be as bad as last year.”

An aerial view of flooding caused by the damaged Len Small levee, upper left, on the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois, seen on Nov. 6, 2019.
An aerial view of flooding caused by the damaged Len Small levee, upper left, on the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois, seen on Nov. 6, 2019. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Flooding on the Mississippi River and its tributaries throughout Illinois and the Midwest caused an estimated $6.2 billion in damage in 2019, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The floods, which overwhelmed towns, farms, roads, bridges, levees and dams, contributed to the deaths of four people across 13 states.

The flooding in Illinois and the surrounding states last year was the costliest since 2008, when Midwest states suffered $12.1 billion in damage. The Quad Cities, along the Mississippi River on the Illinois-Iowa border, was particularly hard hit.

But so far, the coronavirus has had minimal effect on flooding preparations in Rock Island on the banks of the Mississippi. The city has been rotating shifts for the city’s three dozen public works field employees in order to minimize social interactions. Crews are now rotating on a one-day-on, one-day-off schedule, Rock Island city manager Randy Tweet said.

Sandbags are already prepared if needed, with more materials on hand if spring rains lead to a swelling of the river like a year ago. Last week, the Mississippi River registered about 15 feet, Tweet said. At 18 feet, Rock Island moves to install its portable flood wall.

“We’ve obviously been dealing with this for decades, so we have a pretty good organization plan that we follow,” Tweet said.

Last year, Rock Island needed to rent pumps in order to get water out of the city at a cost of $10,000 per month. The river was above flood stage for nearly 90 days in 2019. This year, Tweet said the city has applied for federal flood relief so the city can buy its own pumps to have onsite when the river rises. This type of response, Tweet said, was once needed only every few years. Now, he said, “it’s pretty much every year, and sometimes multiple times per year.”

Farther to the south, in Beardstown, a town of about 5,500 on the Illinois River about 75 miles southwest of Peoria, Mayor Leslie Harris said they are mostly focused on how the coronavirus has been affecting local restaurants and businesses.

A year ago, downtown Beardstown was swamped with floodwaters. But it’s still early in spring, and the river was at 17 feet last week, well below the 32- to 34-foot height of the town’s flood wall, Harris said. Paving work to repair Main Street along the river and other downtown roads damaged by last year’s floodwaters continues, the mayor said, and she hopes the municipal sewers have recovered from the aftermath of 2019′s heavy rains.

“We’re all working together and taking (the coronavirus) seriously,” Harris said, though spring flooding is always on the radar. “Last year was really scary. You never know what the river is going to do.”

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At the state level, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency began flood preparation outreach in January and then held statewide meetings with local jurisdictions in February to make sure communities were tracking supplies and updating their plans in the wake of massive flooding throughout Illinois one year ago. Rebecca Clark, a spokeswoman for IEMA, said the coronavirus has not changed operations or preparations.

“As we move into the spring months, we work hand-in-hand with the National Weather Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate river levels, forecast outlooks and to monitor levee health and frost depth,” Clark said via email. “There have been minimal requests for state assistance as it pertains to flooding."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans, trains and runs exercises in order to be ready to support local and state agencies in the event of a disaster that stretches beyond their capabilities. If a local jurisdiction becomes overwhelmed, said Cassie Ringsdorf, spokeswoman for FEMA Region 5, it can reach out to the state, and if the damage is beyond state resources, the governor can request help from FEMA.

Allen Marshall, spokesman for the Rock Island District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said most of the levee inspections in the district are done well in advance of spring rains and have already been completed, so the coronavirus outbreak has not dented that work.

The pandemic also has not yet changed any plans for the scheduled summer closures of a series of locks and dams on the Illinois River to allow for long-needed repairs and upgrades.

Even as conditions and restrictions shift as the state and region cope with the spread of the virus, Marshall said the Army Corps will do its best to balance its mission with the reality of the situation.

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“Public safety is always highest on our list of priorities, and I don’t see that changing,” he said.

In early March, the offices of U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth announced that $4.1 million in emergency federal funds will be directed to the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Army Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for infrastructure repairs caused by last year’s rains and flooding.

A warmer spring and less snow on the ground in the upper Midwest are the main differences between this year and a year ago, Smerbeck said, although the soil throughout the region is still packed with moisture, meaning that new rain will more easily run off into streams and rivers. Moderate-to-major flooding is still a concern for portions southern Illinois through May, he said, with higher risks toward southern Missouri and the Mississippi Delta regions.

The forecast for April calls for above-average precipitation for central and southern Illinois, Smerbeck said, while areas to the north near Chicago should be in for average rainfall.

One trend keeps coming to the forefront: storms with higher available moisture and more intense rains, Smerbeck said, dropping several more inches than in the past.

“There are more hard-hitters,” Smerbeck said. “It makes sense to expect more intense rain events.”

A year ago, flooding began to plague Illinois in late spring. Persistent rains caused widespread damage to cities and towns along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, particularly in the western and southern parts of the state. The flooding left communities waterlogged for months, delaying or wiping out the planting season of corn and soybeans for farmers.

In Beardstown, Mayor Harris is hopeful that her goal of rehabilitating the town marina will be able to go on as scheduled this year. With the river not yet a concern, the town has been focused on the governor’s stay-at-home order and its effect on local businesses.

Last weekend, local churches came together to pass out sandwiches to the community, and one of the local banks held a drive-thru candy bag drive.

“We have no fear yet,” Harris said. “We’re just trying to help our current businesses that are essential, and for people to keep calling in their food orders and picking up food and giving them some business.”

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