Davenport, Iowa, Battles Raging Mississippi

Chet Simpson had two pumps humming away in the basement of his home just downstream of the downtown area, where officials were watching the bulging Mississippi River as it was cresting late Tuesday.

"Mother Nature rules everything," said Simpson, 61. "When it happens, it just makes you a stronger person."

Simpson said he and his wife Pam had no intention of leaving their home. The water was seeping into the basement, but had not reached the first floor, he said.

Simpson said people who want to build a flood wall to protect this city — the largest urban area on the upper Mississippi without one — of are "a bunch of crybabies."

"Let the water go where it's supposed to go. You can't beat Mother Nature. You never will," he said.

At 6:20 p.m., the river level was 22.25 feet, its third highest level on record, the National Weather Service said.

"It's in the process of cresting right now," said meteorologist Andy Ervin, who said the river level still would fluctuate for as much as a day or two.

"We still expect it to crest to near 22.5, and once again, at this point, we're dealing with an inch, inch and a half. Waves are taller than that," he said. "A 10 mph wind will produce a wave taller than that."

Gov. Tom Vilsack, who earlier had issued a disaster proclamation for 10 Iowa counties along the river, made a formal request Tuesday for federal disaster aid, which could include low-interest loans, housing assistance and cleanup aid.

The National Guard barricaded the blocks around the downtown riverfront as city workers continued their battle to keep floodwaters from breaching a 12-foot clay-and-sandbag levee protecting downtown businesses.

Workers behind the levee, which stretched 1,200 feet along River Drive, monitored nine diesel- and gasoline-powered pumps removing water that was bubbling up through storm sewers and cracks in the street behind the sandbag levee.

"Wall looks good. I see no problems," city construction inspector Ron Hocker said as he made his rounds at midmorning Tuesday. "I'm not worried about leaks in the levee. I'm worried about keeping up with the problems in the street."

Volunteers dumped truckloads of sandbags on trouble spots behind the levee, trying to keep the water below ground.

The wall was built to hold back a 23-foot flood. City officials were optimistic it would hold.

"I think it's going to hold," said Ed Veit, owner of Veit's Vettes and Collector Cars, a shop about a block from the wall. "I'm really impressed with what they've done here."

Sharon Trout, 37, and seven other volunteers were helping with sandbags.

"Their dike is holding back the water from my home, so I'm doing what I can," he said. "They keep reinforcing it with sand. It's holding up real good."

Many businesses near the bulging river remained open despite flooding. At the Southeast National Bank on River Drive, employees reported little change in the number of customers. The brick bank draped a sign — "Yes! We are open" — on top of a barrier keeping cars from the flooded road.

"We're up high enough that it probably won't affect us," said David Dellos, a bank vice president, sitting near a window that overlooked the sandbag wall.

Bill Walv, 47, who works downtown for MidAmerican Energy, walked in a park south of the downtown area on his lunch break.

"Probably the most interesting thing about it is all the attention it's getting," Walv said. "Probably too much."

About 50 employees from an accounting firm — some wearing orange life preservers — posed in front of flood waters for the company's magazine. The group took a similar photograph in 1993.

"Everybody asks 'How's the flood?' so we put the picture in the magazine and show them," said Richard Straka, an employee of RSM McGladery.

Clayton Lloyd, Davenport's director of community and economic development, estimated that fewer than 100 homes in this city of 98,359 residents would be affected by flooding.

About 70 homes in an outlying neighborhood along the river had been flooded. The small one-story homes, circa 1940s or '50s, sat in a low area between some railroad tracks and the river almost three miles south of the downtown area.

Statewide, 1,115 homes, most of them secondary or vacation homes, had been damaged. About 300 families had been driven from their homes by flooding, Iowa Emergency Management Division spokeswoman Lucinda Parker said Tuesday.

Davenport is the largest urban area on the upper Mississippi without a permanent flood wall. After the flood of 1993, damage in the city was estimated at $100 million.

"We get these 100-year floods every five years," said Bill Ernst, 47, who owns a local convenience store near the dike. He said his business was down about a third because of city barricades blocking off areas behind the sandbag levee.

Julie Macken, 42, said she used to live in Minnesota, "so I know where it started, but you come down here, and it gets broader and broader. I'm really amazed that the river view is this important."

She said she could understand why townspeople would hesitate to wall it off.

Davenport officials bristled Tuesday at a remark made by Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh, who planned to visit the city Thursday. to discuss the problem of continual federal bailouts for flood victims.

"The question is: How many times the American taxpayer has to step in and take care of this flooding, which could be easily prevented by building levees and dikes?" Allbaugh told reporters.

Mayor Phil Yerington called the comment an insult to families fighting hard to save their homes.

"Don't insult what we tried to do, and the people who we are, because we're in the Midwest and we live along a major river," Yerington said.

Taxes paid by Davenport residents have helped pay for aid to victims of hurricanes on the Atlantic and Gulf coast, he said.

"We pay our share of the load and I feel sometimes like the people in this area have been singled out and are punished just because we happen to live along the river," Yerington said. "We've had three 100-year floods in the last eight years, and who would have thought that would have happened?"

City officials said they have taken several steps to prevent flooding since the mid-1980s, including stricter building regulations and a renovation plan in the downtown area. Since 1990, the city has bought 52 homes in the flood plain.

Gov. Vilsack refused to take sides on what he said was a local issue.

"It's a difficult decision," the governor said. "It's theirs to make."