News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 23, 2013

Sandbags & Shelter: Wabash River tops 27 feet

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

DRESSER — With 2013 being celebrated as the Year of the River, then April of 2013 might be remembered as the spring the Wabash River got too full of itself and flooded.

In both the riverside community of Dresser and rural Prairieton Township along Robertson Road, sandbagging efforts on Monday attempted to hold back Wabash River flood waters that threatened homes, a church and acres of farmland.

Tiffany White, wife of Dresser Church pastor Buddy White, said she learned of the water threatening the Dresser Church at 3:30 a.m. Monday. By 4:30 a.m., sandbags and sand had arrived so that volunteers could begin the hours-long effort to minimize damage to the church.

“We’ve had a lot of people show up,” White said at about 9 a.m., after the sandbaggers had to abandon a worksite closer to the church and move a block away to somewhat drier ground where they could continue to fill the sandbags.

“We’re pumping out water from the church basement. We have four pumps running now,” White said, “but it’s coming out through the registers onto the main floor.”

Many of the pews had been moved from the main floor to the higher pulpit level, where the church’s musical equipment was kept. She was hopeful the water would recede before it reached the pulpit level.

The sandbags were loaded onto a truck, transported across flooded local roads, and then offloaded around the church foundation by volunteers from the Vigo County Community Corrections program.

White said the 1920 church is a vital part of the community.

“Family from way back has been at that church a long time, and it means a lot to us, so we’re trying to keep from losing it,” White said. “This church has helped a lot of people, so we’re just trying to save it.”

White and many other community volunteers had already spent part of Sunday sandbagging on the town’s south side closer to the river. But on Monday, the water crept into a large residential area near the park, and air bubbles could be seen rising as the water filled the subsurface drainage system.

Across the road from the sandbagging site on Schley Place south of Dewey Drive, Kevin Laycock had set up a pump to remove water flooding the basement of his girlfriend’s family home.

“We’re hoping to get some of those sandbags to the back of our house to stop the water,” Laycock said. “It’s coming into the basement quick.”

Around the community of small houses and mobile homes, some residents could be seen standing on porches or decks, watching the water level rise.

J.D. Kesler, deputy director of the Vigo County Emergency Management Agency, said the Dresser residents had been encouraged to leave their homes for their own safety, but most had declined.

“These are their homes,” Kesler said. “They don’t want to leave, and that’s their right.”

EMA director Dr. Dorene Hojnicki told the Tribune-Star she met with the same reluctance from residents to leave their homes along Robertson Road in southwestern Vigo County.

“We’ve asked the residents to leave, and right now, no one wants to go,” Hojnicki said at about 2:30 p.m. Monday. “The Red Cross has a shelter open, and no one has taken advantage of it, so they may close it tonight and reopen tomorrow.”

But as of mid-afternoon, she said it appeared that the river was cresting. Sandbagging efforts along Robertson Road had stopped up a few areas where the levee was in danger of collapse or breach.

Additional rainfall is expected today, but she said that likely would not make much of an impact on the river level. The worries come from farther north, where water from the Lafayette area collects and comes downriver.

“It really depends on how much and how fast it rains,” Hojnicki said.

In addition to the Robertson Road area, which historically floods during the spring, two small mobile home parks in the Terre Haute area were also seeing flooding. Six homes in an area along Florida Avenue near North Sixth Street were affected by rising water, she said.

Another area at the Rocky Acres Trailer Park off Cox Road northwest of Prairieton was also threatened by water, but had stabilized as of Monday afternoon.

The sandbagging effort along Robertson Road west of the Blue Hole area got moving late Monday morning after local residents requested sand and bags.

Clay Higginbotham called friends and neighbors to work on the levee where several homes were in danger of being washed away. The water was coming atop the level at several points, he told the Tribune-Star, and it was threatening his parents’ farmland.

“It was threatening all our neighbors down here,” he said. “You gotta take care of your neighbors.”

Family friend Gary Frye, who lives in Terre Haute away from the flooding, said he spent several hours tossing sandbags Monday morning alongside Higginbotham, and he had mud on his arms up to his elbows where he had worked to plug holes where water was coming through the levee.

Hojnicki said the sandbagging was up to volunteers — the county would provide the sand and the EMA would deliver the bags. She said there was no plan to request assistance from a National Guard unit unless a severe breach of the levee called for mass evacuations, such as for a nursing home facility or an entire residential neighborhood.

Cheryl and Don Belcher, who live in a cabin home next to the Blue Hole, were keeping an eye on the flooding and said they were prepared to leave their home.

“We’ve been here 15 years,” Cheryl said, “and this is the highest I’ve ever seen it at this levee.”

The water has been up to the wooden deck of their home before — in 2008 and 2010, Don said.

Across the road from their house, the levee had a few leaky spots along the road. Standing atop it, the water was within inches of spilling over toward her home. A few hundred yards to the east along Arbuckle Place, the water was rushing east, spilling across and washing away the county road.

Also keeping an eye on the flooding were representatives of the U.S. Army  Corps of Engineers, who were monitoring the levee.

A flood warning issued by the National Weather Service at Indianapolis stated on Monday that rapid river rises were possible in southwestern Vigo County through 9 p.m. Tuesday.

The Vigo County EMA reported that the Honey Creek levee had been overtopped where it meets the Greenfield Bayou, causing the flooding at Robertson Road, Cantrell Drive and Arbuckle Place.

The river at Terre Haute was at 27.3 feet at noon Monday, and it appeared to be nearing crest, although river levels were not expected to fall below 27 feet until Tuesday afternoon, according to the NWS report.

Today’s NWS forecast calls for a chance of showers and thunderstorms with a high near 67 degrees. The chance of precipitation was 60 percent. Tuesday night rainfall was also predicted at a chance of 90 percent. The possibility of rainfall on Wednesday was only 30 percent.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.