ST. LOUIS – Duffels of police riot gear. Thousands of pens. Toys, water heaters and even dog houses. As floodwaters retreat across the Midwest, remnants of washed-out households are turning up in the muddy ooze miles from the families who lost them.
"Anything you can possibly think of, we're finding," said Tammy Becker, a volunteer with Living Lands and Waters, an Illinois-based environmental group helping to clean up the banks of the Cedar River downstream from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Over the past couple of weeks, the group has pulled tons of debris from the muck. Most of the items have nothing to identify their owners, so volunteers haul the waste to a collection site near Cedar Rapids, where it is sorted and taken to landfills or incinerators.
"The city comes to get the garbage. The EPA comes to pick up the hazardous materials," Becker said.
So far, the detritus has been less of a hazard than a headache. Most of it has been ruined by exposure to floodwaters, which ran thick with raw sewage and other toxins.
Even so, that hasn't stopped some people from hunting for things they could reuse.
"There's a lot of treasure to be found in all this," Dan Marstin, another Living Lands volunteer, said Tuesday along the Cedar River shoreline.
"It's kind of caveat emptor — do it at your own risk," he said, convinced his generous use of hand sanitizer would keep him safe.
In Wisconsin, authorities said, several handguns have been turned over to police after being found in what had been the 267 acre Lake Delton, which emptied last month into the nearby Wisconsin River after heavy rain caused a breach in part of an embankment that held back the lake.
Bill Engfer of that state's Department of Natural Resources figures the weapons were tossed into the lake before the floodwaters swept away three houses in the area and carried their water heaters, dryers and tables up to 20 miles away.
Dog houses, furniture, lawn equipment and "every type of boat" have turned up on the shores of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers and other channels that flooded in southern Wisconsin. A large propane tank washed up along the Mississippi.
Such junk will probably continue turning up as long as water remains high. Officials try to find the owners, when possible, but most property is so water-logged it's beyond repair, he said.
In Iowa, the Living Lands crew has retrieved a refrigerator that floodwaters deposited in a tree, 15 feet off the ground. They also found chain-saw sculptures — one with the likeness of a bear, another with a wildflower scene.
The water even got inside the Cedar Rapids Police Department, where the current ripped the doors off hinges, flooded most of the basement and carried away several canvas duffel bags of riot gear — helmets, padding, and coats and pants.
Some of the duffels didn't make it far, police spokeswoman Cristy Hamblin said. Others got a wild ride and eventually turned up miles away. Living Lands volunteers, relying on the bags' name tags, returned them to police.
"It all literally was sucked out of the building," Hamblin said. "It came in and swept away anything that wasn't tied down."