Mississippi River floods near top of levee, threatens small towns

Jun 7, 2019

The Mississippi River on June 6, 2019 bordering the levee that is keeping Grand Tower, Illinois above water and dry during this year's flood. The Mississippi River is expected to crest near-historic levels in upcoming days.
Credit Amelia Blakely

Throughout Grand Tower the sound of pumps, birds and the river fills the town's enviroment.

With the Mississippi River rising, residents in southern Illinois river towns including Grand Tower are working to keep their homes dry from flooding and preparing to evacute if the river breaches the levee. 

According to the National Weather Service, on June 7 the river was measured to be a higher than 49 feet. In the Great Flood 93' the river crested at 52 feet. 

A truck passing on Route 3 near the flooded Big Muddy River on June 6, 2019.
Credit Amelia Blakely

In Grand Tower, the high water level attracts southern Illinois residents from neighboring communities on higher ground to see the magnitude of the flood. 

Some including Audrey Thornton, from Carbondale took advantage of the high water to go fishing.

Audrey Thornton, from Carbondale, prepares his fishing line after catching a catfish while fishing on top the levee in Grand Tower, Illinois on June 6, 2019.
Credit Amelia Blakely

For Thornton, the fishing was plentiful as he caught three catfish in the span of three hours. Thornton has lived in southern Illinois for 40 years. He said every year when the water's rise he makes time to fish the elevated waters. 

Thornton walking through high grass on the levee protecting Grand Tower, Illinois from the flooded Mississippi River on June 6, 2019.
Credit Amelia Blakely
Thornton stands near the Mississippi River on the levee, reeling in a catfish on June 6, 2019 in Grand Tower, Illinois.
Credit Amelia Blakely

As Thornton sat in his lawn chair, watching the river pass and keeping an eye for tugs on his lines, Grand Tower residents came to see the river that imposes a watery fate for their home every year. 

"This is the town's excitement - watching the river pass by," one resident said. 

This year, the elevated river level is reminding residents of the Great Flood of 93'.  One resident said since the flood in 1993, everytime the Mississippi floods the levee becomes saturated and allows water to seep through the ground. 

She said she woke up one morning with more than two feet of water in her basement.

A farm house surrounded by water outside Grand Tower, Illinois on Route 3 on June 6, 2019.
Credit Amelia Blakely

As Grand Tower residents pump water out of their basements, they're also preparing to evacuate if the river were to breach the levee.

"We've survived this so many times it's not even funny, it's become a natural way of life I guess," a Grand Tower resident said. 

Jackson County's emergency management agency deputy coordinator Orval Rowe says one of the priorities is at Grand Tower.
 
"The Army Corps of Engineers, we've got the Jackson County Sheriff's Office and Grand Tower has their own crew that they monitor through the night and through the day. They're just watching for sand boils. They watching for any irregularities in the levee."

He says the levee is structurally sound, right now.

"We won't have a problem as far as overtopping the levee with this river crest. We just have to watch the sand boils and all the issues down at the base of the levees. I mean, every day we have a few more little things popping up, but, again, with the 46-foot river that's sat on this river for the past two-plus months, I mean, it's almost expected."

Rowe echoes calls from law enforcement for the public to stay off the levees, especially at Grand Tower.
 
"It is unsafe when you're on top of the levee when the river water is 6-8 feet on the other side. One slip up, you could drive down the other side of the levee. You'll be in the river."

There was a levee gate failure on a Big Muddy River levee in Oakwood Bottoms on Friday, but it was sealed off later that day.