News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 24, 2013

Fighting the floodwaters: Sandbag by sandbag, day by day, they battle the river

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Kay Roberts was tired, her hands blistered.

But for the third day in a row, she was back at Dresser Tuesday for more sandbagging.

“People need help,” she said, holding a white bag as someone shoveled sand into it. Her sister, Thelma Smith, lives in Dresser, where Roberts used to hang out as a teen-ager.

Roberts was joined by her daughter, Donna Akers, and 6-year-old grandson, Logan. Her grandson eagerly did his part and shoveled sand.

A steady rain fell, and Roberts wore a yellow poncho, boots, jeans and black gloves. A tent covered a mound of sand, where 25 to 30 people assisted in the sandbagging efforts.

While the Wabash River had gone down to about 26.6 feet and was falling early Tuesday evening, residents remained concerned about additional rain to the north.

Also, more sandbags were needed about 3⁄4 of a mile to the south, where the river had gone over part of the levee road Monday night and started to wash it away. “We had two holes in the levee last night (Monday). We got them plugged, but we’re still sending bags,” Thelma Smith said.

Volunteers weren’t just Dresser residents, their family and friends. Volunteers included Indiana State University and West Vigo High School students, Zorah Shrine members and people from as far away as Rockville and Illinois who just wanted to help out.

“We’ve had people with heart problems and broken legs,” even some women who are pregnant, who have volunteered to help, Smith said. They may not be able to shovel sand or load sandbags onto trucks, but they can hold the bags as someone else fills them and then tie the bags.

“It’s teamwork,” Kay Roberts said.

When people got tired, they would go to a nearby tent to take a break and eat food that had been donated by businesses, individuals and charitable organizations. Red Cross also planned to take food in the evening. “It’s just been amazing,” Smith said.

A bonfire crackled nearby, and volunteers could go stand by it if they needed to warm up.

As Dresser resident Larry McCullough drove a load of sandbags south on the levee road where volunteers waited, water was on each side — the flooding Wabash to the left and river seepage to the right.

A group of more than a dozen people waited, most of them members of ISU’s Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. That part of the levee was covered with sandbags to keep the river from washing it away.

Among those assisting was Logan Seger, ISU student and Pi Kappa Alpha member. The fraternity housemother asked if the students could assist. “This is probably as bad as I’ve seen since 2008,” when major flooding occurred in Indiana, Seger said. He is from Vincennes.

Also helping unload sandbags on the levee road was Faith Phillips, who joined her fiance, Scott Nasser. He is in Zorah Shrine with Gary Smith, who lives in Dresser.

Smith told them about the flooding and they quickly joined the sandbagging effort.  “We thought they needed help,” Phillips said.

After seeing houses surrounded by, and inundated with water, she said, “I had no idea.” Phillips said they helped sandbag when Vigo County experienced flooding in 2008.

Also assisting Tuesday was Todd Anderson, 41, who spent about 12 hours at Dresser Monday and returned about 10 a.m. Tuesday. It’s hard work, “but it’s worth it, being able to come out and save people’s houses and save the church. It brings the community together,” he said.

He was able to keep going by  “laughing, joking and taking breaks,” he said.

Travis Heyen worked his shift at Misco and then went to Dresser to assist. He also volunteered there from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday. “I hope somebody would do it for me,” he said.

Dustin Olinger and Alex May were among several West Vigo High School students who went to Dresser after school. Both had been there the night before as well. “I know a lot of people who live here and I just wanted to help the community,” Olinger said.

Despite the rain, the National Weather Service had some good news. The river stage was 26.59 and falling at 7 p.m., and the forecast called for the river to continue to fall, said meteorologist Crystal Pettet.

But rain falling Tuesday night into Wednesday morning — about one inch was expected — “could prolong the fall,” she said.

The Wabash “will continue a downward trend, but it will go down very slowly because of the additional rainfall,” Pettet said. It could be Monday before the river falls below 22 feet, she said.

Flood stage in Terre Haute is 14 feet.

Late Tuesday night, Vigo County Emergency Management officials continued to closely monitor the situation. The rain “is a bit of a concern. … I’m hoping the river continues to go down in spite of the rain,” said J.D. Kesler, deputy director.

The river overtopping the Dresser levee allowed water to go into the wetlands and behind Dresser, he said.

In southwestern Vigo County, about a 200-foot section of the Greenfield Bayou levee had washed out Tuesday, affecting farmland and threatening some homes, Kesler said. Sandbagging was underway in the area. The breach occurred where McNutt Road intersects with the river.

The breach “makes for some headaches we hoped we would not have to deal with,” Kesler said.

Meanwhile, Red Cross continued to take several calls from families with various needs, “and we are working with community partners to address their needs,” said Carol Stevens, executive director. Some needed food and clothing because of flooding.

“I’m sure there will be some emergency needs in the days ahead as people are able to get back into their homes,” she said. Many calls came from Vigo and Vermillion counties.

She anticipated Red Cross would do bulk distribution of cleanup kits and garbage bags in areas where it is needed. The largest affected area is Dresser.

Emergency management directors in several Wabash Valley counties reported that water was receding, and many roads that had been closed were re-opening.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or