Sabula Fire Chief Dan Miller gets on the fire department Gator to patrol the levee shortly after the Mississippi’s first crest last month.
Patrollers expected water to seep through the ground on the protected side of the levee, but patrollers look for seepage that is flowing or dirty, which would indicate that part of the levee is being washed away by the water. Water boils would be a problem, too.
“We’re in pretty good shape now,” Miller said, as the water started to recede slowly.
Now, after the Mississippi’s second high crest this spring, Sabula patrols continue, and waiting out the high water is the name of the game for the Island City’s residents.
Volunteers are still sought for levee patrols. Call Sabula City Hall at 687-2420 to get involved and learn more about the patrol.
Miller is a lifelong Sabula resident who retired from DuPont. He served for 50 years on the fire department and 45 years as an EMT.
During flooding, levee patrol volunteers take eight-hour shifts around the clock. They check the levees on the north, east and south sides of town, driving a small utility vehicle. Volunteers look for dirty seepage, water boils, or other indicators that the earthen and sand levees could be starting to wash away.
Patrols continue until the water falls to a safer level, about 19.5 feet, Miller said. The city follows a standard operating procedure, but there’s still a degree of informality to the actual practice.
The Island City’s make-up
“Iowa’s only island city” is connected via causeway to the north, where the highway crosses the main channel to Illinois. It’s connected to the Iowa “mainland” by three narrow strips of land, which create protected lakes and include the Highway 52 access to the island and levees to the north and south.
Levee patrollers drive out the northern and southern levees, around town, along the eastern levee alongside the main channel in town, and along River Street.
The mainland corner of the southern levee was built up most recently. That’s where the levee has needed sandbagging in the past, although not this year. Flapper gates and pumps help maintain the lake levels.
Levee maintenance has been a work in intermittent progress for decades. Some of the town’s levees date back to the 1960s, but the municipality has done additional work in the past 10 years. In fact, the levee system was recertified last fall. That certification means residents with mortgages don’t need to buy flood insurance, which can be expensive.
On the north side of town, the river’s current beats directly against the earthen levee. But the south levee, where the Mississippi seeps back into the lakes, has been the most vulnerable area in the past.
When the river is this high, the town’s wastewater treatment plant can only be accessed by boat. Discharge goes into the Mississippi when the river is this high, under permit from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Miller said.
They’re not the only ones. Davenport, for example, has been pumping sewage into the river since April 29.
The levee patrol’s view
Around Sabula, hoses run from basement sump pumps out into the street, trying to remove water from homes and businesses. At least one home runs two pumps to keep up with the demand.
A few spots are sandbagged, including a newly built shed that is completely surrounded by water along the River Street waterfront. The Joinerville Boat Club on the southeast corner of the island is also heavily sandbagged.
Miller knows who lives in most of the Sabula homes and at what level they have to start pumping out water. Some residents start their sump pumps when flood waters reach 13 feet — the water crested over 19.5 feet. A few homes are on high points or hardpan, not sand, so they never pump.
The Homeport Bar moved upstairs to the garage — pool table and all — when the river came into the main floor of the bar. On April 9, water filled the first floor, but patrons relaxed on the upper deck. It’s not the first time it’s been flooded downstairs, and it probably won’t be the last.
Owner Glenna Zaruba said that she does worry about the bar downstairs, as the pounding of floodwater could damage the structure. However, the new upstairs bar is structurally separate, so it won’t be affected.
“We’re watching closely,” Zaruba said.
Mid-afternoon last week, the upstairs bar was busy with customers, joking and chatting over their beverages. Bartender Shonna Tietjens said the addition was completed last fall, but the Zarubas moved the pool table, dart board, ice machine, jukebox and poker machines upstairs when floodwaters started to threaten the traditional Homeport.
People here know how to prepare for floods within precedent, and big water always brings up stories of bigger water.
Miller was 18 in the flood of April 1965, the highest crest yet recorded on the Mississippi River. He remembers sandbagging in 1993 and 2001, which round out the “big three” crests.
High water is expected to last for weeks, and any precipitation this week could prolong major flooding and potentially even lead to another crest, especially to the south. The National Weather Service in the Quad Cities predicts “multiple rounds of storms through Thursday” but says that “new crest levels are highly uncertain” and depend on how much rain falls and where the storms track.
Flooding is worrisome and makes for messy clean-up, but it’s par for the course with the river at your front and back doors,
Living on the river is worth it, according to Miller.
“That’s why we live here.”