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Southeastern Iowa Scrambles to Reinforce Levees


This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. President Bush says he will personally examine the flooding in Iowa later this week. Some areas, including Des Moines residents, are returning home to see just how much damage the flood waters have left. In other areas, including southeast Iowa, people are gearing up for the worst. The Mississippi River is expected to top record flood levels in the next few days.

COHEN: Steve Cirinna is the coordinator of Lee County Emergency Management. He's in the southeastern part of Iowa. He joins us now. And what is the current status of the flooding where you are?

Mr. STEVE CIRINNA (Coordinator, Lee County Emergency Management, Iowa): Actually, Alex, we're - knock on wood, we've been a lot luckier than other places in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. We have an area of concern that we're working on. It's a levee. And there have been a number of levee breaks in the past couple of days in this area, so we're really working hard to maintain that. And that's what we call our Green Bay levee district. It's known locally as the Green Bay bottoms. It's almost pretty much the northeastern point of our county. There are a number of workers up there. They've been pushing dirt up on top of the levee, laying plastic. They put straw out, sandbagging. We've had a lot of folks up that way.

And the National Guard is here. We've had inmate labor from the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. They've been filling sandbags at their facility. The city of Fort Madison - we have the waters rising here. We're focusing on three critical facilities here, the water treatment facility, the wastewater treatment facility, and there's a electrical substation that's on the east side of town that we're making sure that that stays up so that we don't lose power to a number of citizens here in Fort Madison.

COHEN: I'd like to ask you about the waters. I read this morning that there's been all sorts of stuff floating in that water: diesel fuel, pigs. People have been warned to steer clear of it. How dangerous is that situation?

Mr. CIRINNA: Well, it's a long-term health risk because there is a lot of stuff that gets into water in floods, any time there's a flood anywhere. Because of all this rain, the farmers were putting out fertilizer on their fields that normally would stay in the field that's getting washed in. You've got gas stations. You've got chemical plants, facilities like that. You have warehouses that store chemicals. A lot of that stuff is getting out.

We've had reports of propane, the large propane tanks, floating down the river. So there's a lot of stuff in that water. And that's - again, that's common in floods where this stuff starts to happen. And we try to keep the people out. We don't want anyone in that water. When they go in there they're protected. We try to make sure they're in boats. They've got rubber boots on so that there's no long-term health risk.

COHEN: Looking ahead to recovery, how much funding have you received, and how far will that money go?

Mr. CIRINNA: The way it works is that it's actually a reimbursement. Once the presidential disaster declaration is issued, then that's when the FEMA reimbursement will kick in. Right now, what we're doing with the response mode is - we are getting help from the state. The state is supplying its National Guard troops Department of Transportation equipment. And if they can't find some stuff, they're going out and purchasing it for us and then they're sending it in. And that's not only down here, but that has been throughout this entire flood-response effort throughout eastern Iowa.

COHEN: There have been parallels drawn between the flooding going on now and what happened after Hurricane Katrina. And there wasn't a great reputation, especially with FEMA, after that experience. What sense do you have of what might have changed since then and how things might go this time?

Mr. CIRINNA: Well, since Katrina there have been a number of changes in the way FEMA's response and in their planning for the response. In fact, when the Governor Culver was down here in Keokuk yesterday, along with Congressman Loebasack, they had FEMA representatives with them. And he was talking and making some arrangements. And they, actually, they are represented in the State Emergency Operation Center up near Des Moines. So they're monitoring the situation. Once this is over with, they will head out and help us out.

COHEN: Steve Cirinna of Lee County Emergency Management in Iowa. Thanks, and best of luck.

Mr. CIRINNA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alex Cohen
Alex Cohen is the reporter for NPR's fastest-growing daily news program, Day to Day where she has covered everything from homicides in New Orleans to the controversies swirling around the frosty dessert known as Pinkberry.