PEORIA HEIGHTS, Ill. – Flood-weary homeowners and sandbaggers across the Midwest are praying for a relenting of rains that have added more water to already swollen rivers blamed for swallowing up neighborhoods, fraying victims' patience along the way.
Even as some of the renegade rivers are showing signs of cresting, the recovery won't be fast or easy. The National Weather Service expects many of the waterways to remain high into next month, straining levees during the river's expectedly slow descent.
Floodwaters were rising to record levels along the Illinois River in central Illinois. In Missouri, six small levees north of St. Louis were overtopped by the surging Mississippi River, though mostly farmland was affected.
The biggest troubles were in Illinois, on the Illinois River that Peoria officials said Tuesday finally had crested, but not without destruction. In Peoria Heights, population 6,700, roads and buildings were flooded and riverfront structures were inundated. Firefighters feared that if fuel from businesses and vehicles starts to leak, it could spark a fire in areas that could be reached only by boat.
"That's our nightmare: A building burns, and we can't get to it," Peoria Heights Fire Chief Greg Walters said. "These are combustible buildings, and we have no access to them simply because of the flooding."
About 20 to 30 homes and businesses near the river have been evacuated, he said.
Among those still in their homes was Mark Reatherford. The 52-year-old unemployed baker has lived for decades in the same split-level home with a gorgeous view: a small park between him and the Illinois River. But by Tuesday afternoon, as a chilly rain fell, the river had rolled over the park and made it to Reatherford's home, creating a 3-foot-deep mess in the basement. Reatherford had cleared out the basement furniture and was hopeful the main floor would stay dry.
Now, he's considering moving.
"You can't get a better view than what we've got here," he said. But "I'm getting too old to deal with this."
In a nearby neighborhood, retired Caterpillar crane operator Roland Gudat spent much of Tuesday afternoon on his porch swing, looking out with marvel toward the Illinois River that had swallowed up homes down the street but sparing his home of 46 years, except for the hundreds of gallons of water he has pumped out of his basement as seepage from the saturated ground.
Gudat, 73, remarked that he'd never seen the river so high. That goes for the gawkers who have annoyed him so much that he and neighbors placed saw horses in their driveways to prevent them from turning around, forcing them to back their way back down the road.
"I told them this isn't a damn cul de sac," he said. "If they knock those saw horses over, I'm gonna turn their keys off and call the cops."
In downtown Peoria, tens of thousands of white and yellow sandbags stacked 3 feet high lined blocks of the city's scenic riverfront, holding back floodwaters that already had surrounded the visitors' center and the 114-year-old former train depot that lately has housed restaurants. Across the street, smaller sandbag walls blocked off riverside pedestrian access to Caterpillar's headquarters and the city's museum.
In nearby Chillicothe, more than 400 homes have been affected by the flood, said Vicky Turner, director of the Peoria County Emergency Management Agency. Many homes have been evacuated, but others whose owners have had their buildings raised over the years because of flooding have chosen to stay put, Turner said.
"They row back and forth ... up to the main road," she said.
Yet elsewhere, there were snippets of good news. Lucas Schultz, the 12-year-old Smithton, Ill., boy who was rescued Sunday from the raging Big River near Leadwood, Mo., and revived by his rescuer was at home Tuesday and doing fine.
The Mississippi still hasn't crested in Dutchtown, Mo., a 100-resident town 110 miles south of St. Louis that in recent days, with help from dozens of Missouri National Guard members, waged a feverish sandbagging effort that as of Tuesday had worked.
In Indiana, floodgates were installed to try and keep the flooding Wabash River from the state's oldest town, Vincennes. Some strategic spots were also being reinforced with sandbags. The weather service projected a crest on Saturday about 12 feet above flood stage, the highest reading in nearly 70 years at Vincennes, founded in 1732.
In Saginaw County, Mich., water topped the dyke at Misteguay Creek in Spaulding Township. Businesses and homes were flooded along the Tittabawassee River, a Saginaw River tributary. Part of Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge also was under water.
Associated Press writer Don Babwin in Chicago contributed to this story.