PEORIA HEIGHTS – Slowly retreating floodwaters gave Midwesterners some hope Wednesday that the worst was over, but many worried that the earthen and days-old sandbag levees along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers could still fail.
Fast-moving currents were testing makeshift protections around Dutchtown, Mo., where the Mississippi was expected to rise well above flood stage later this week and potentially send water into the scattered homes and businesses that comprise the tiny, unprotected river town.
In downtown Peoria, tens of thousands of white and yellow sandbags stacked 3 feet high lined blocks of the scenic riverfront, holding back Illinois River waters that already reached a 70-year high and 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.
Despite the receding water, city leaders were reluctant to issue an all-clear.
"I'm very pleased so far, but we're not out of the woods," Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich said. "The water's going to stay up for a while."
Higher water levels over extended periods of time put significant pressure on levees regardless of how well they're built. Sandbag walls are particularly vulnerable because of their porous nature, and concerns persisted along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri, where smaller levees had been overtopped or breached.
Elsewhere, there were no reports of other significant Midwestern population centers in peril, but high water bedeviled business and home owners who are assessing the damage across multiple states.
• About a dozen northern Indiana homes were condemned and as many as 200 were damaged by flooding in Kokomo after downpours pushed the Wildcat Creek to its highest level on record. Residents took to the streets in canoes, and some people had to be rescued from their vehicles.
• Hundreds of evacuated residents began returning to their homes in western Michigan as the rain-swollen Grand River began receding.
• Officials in Fargo, N.D., are considering scaling back flood protection efforts after the National Weather Service on Wednesday lowered the crest prediction on the Red River by a couple of feet. The crest late next week in Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., will likely range between 38 and 40 feet. The river overflows its banks at 18 feet, but most structures are protected to about 38 feet.
In Peoria, citywide damage estimates are murky and could be sorted out in about a week once flood-affected businesses weigh in on their losses, Urich said.
Up to 20 homes sustained damage, though much of downtown was spared by what he called lessons from floods past: Water Street, which runs along the riverfront, was raised years ago to form more of a barrier between the river and the central business district.
The city's museum and a Caterpillar visitors' center opened last October and together cost $150 million. Both tourism attractions were built on intentionally elevated ground – again out of flood concerns – and weren't harmed by the latest inundation.
"Being as proactive as we were, we mitigated what could have been severe damage to some of those properties," Urich said. "That would be an awful lot of water to be sitting inside someone's business."
Salter reported from St. Louis.
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