PEORIA HEIGHTS, Ill. (AP) — Floodwaters began a slow, inch-by-inch retreat Wednesday in inundated Peoria, Ill., offering hope to residents who watched helplessly as the Illinois River reached a 70-year high and swamped their homes and businesses.
In downtown Peoria, tens of thousands of white and yellow sandbags stacked 3 feet high lined blocks of the scenic riverfront, holding back waters that already had surrounded the visitors’ center and restaurants in the 114-year-old former train depot. Across the street, smaller sandbag walls blocked riverside pedestrian access to the headquarters of heavy equipment maker Caterpillar and the city’s arts and culture museum.
The flood will take its toll economically on Peoria, but authorities watching the receding waters expressed relief that, so far, no lives have been lost.
Elsewhere, there were no reports of other significant Midwestern population centers in peril, but officials were urging caution because of predictions that waterways will remain high through early May and sustain pressure on earthen levees.
Concerns persist along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri, where smaller levees had been overtopped or breached, especially in Lincoln and Pike counties. But sandbag levees in the unprotected towns of Clarksville, Mo., and Dutchtown, Mo., were holding ahead of expected crests later in the week.
Officials in Peoria said the Illinois River finally crested Tuesday at 29.35 feet, eclipsing a 70-year record.
Because the water made numerous roads around the city impassable, firefighters had been especially concerned about being able to battle blazes since the water made numerous roads around the area impassable.
Their closest call came late Tuesday when an above-ground gasoline storage tank at a former boat repair business broke loose, raising concerns of potential disaster if it got swept south into downtown Peoria.
Peoria Heights Fire Chief Greg Walters and others managed to lasso it and wrangle it to shore.
“That’s the only real issue we’ve had at this point,” Walters said. “We’re fortunate in that respect. I’m feeling blessed. Fingers crossed.”
Blair Pumphrey also hoped for good luck, but he wasn’t so fortunate. On Wednesday, he was moving out of his small, brick rental home — its basement flooded to the rafters and the garage swamped. His backyard resembled a lake, with an occasional goose swimming by.
A small wall of sandbags he put up with friends days earlier held off the river for a time, but it proved futile.
“Once the basement started leaking, there was no stopping it,” said Pumphrey, 29, an electrician and member of the Illinois Air National Guard. “Then when the river came around the front, there was nothing I could do.”
Among those still in their homes was Mark Reatherford. The 52-year-old unemployed baker has lived for decades in his split-level, which has a view of a small park and the Illinois River. By Tuesday afternoon, as a chilly rain fell, the river had rolled over the park and reached Reatherford’s home, creating a 3-foot-deep mess in the basement.
He cleared out the basement furniture and was hoping the main floor would stay dry. But he hadn’t dismissed the idea of abandoning his home in Peoria Heights, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago.
“You can’t get a better view than what we’ve got here,” he said, acknowledging “I’m getting too old to deal with this.”
Nearby, retired Caterpillar crane operator Roland Gudat spent much of Tuesday afternoon on his porch swing, marveling at the river, which had swamped houses down the street but largely spared his home of 46 years. The 73-year-old said he had pumped from his basement hundreds of gallons of water that had seeped up from the saturated ground.
Gudat remarked that he’d never seen the river so high, but nonetheless could not tolerate the gawkers that were using neighborhood driveways to turn around.
“I told them this isn’t a damn cul-de-sac,” he said. Gudat and his neighbors placed saw horses in their driveways, forcing sightseers to reverse back down the road.
“If they knock those saw horses over, I’m gonna turn their keys off and call the cops. Don’t come here and bug people in misery,” he said.
In southwestern Indiana, floodgates have been installed to keep the Wabash River from overrunning Vincennes, which was founded in 1732. Some strategic spots in the state’s oldest town have been reinforced with sandbags. The weather service projected a crest on Saturday about 12 feet above flood stage, the highest in nearly 70 years.
The Grand River at Grand Rapids, Mich., which reached record levels recently has receded about 2 feet. Weather officials said it was expected to fall below flood stage Thursday, but it was unclear when the hundreds of people evacuated could return to their homes.
Salter reported from St. Louis. Associated Press writer Don Babwin in Chicago contributed to this story.