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COLUMN ONE : Way of Life Vanishes as Water Ebbs : In July, little Niota, Ill., was swallowed by the Mississippi. Now, the river has retreated and residents face what’s left behind, water-soaked ruins and lots of mud. Mostly, there are questions--stay or go?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took four days for the shredder to devour Niota.

The 10-foot-tall chopping machine, leased by the state and equipped with a new set of knives, had been trucked a discreet distance from the town’s main streets. Thousands of tons of soaked, maggot-ridden debris were waiting.

Into the hopper dropped Ted and Michelle Reinhardt’s bedroom set, Marge Young’s blue bicycle, the antique dresser that once belonged to Josephine Waterman’s grandmother. In slid the 1962 Roger Maris baseball card that Donald Lucas had been saving.

In went children’s collections of unicorn and pig figurines; in went snow shovels, mattresses and American flags.

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Bit by bit, in fell the entire pale gray house where Rick and Mary Rea lived for a quarter-century and more.

Back out the chute streamed everything reduced to small chunks, the easier to haul to a landfill across the Mississippi--the same river that flowed over a levee July 10 and took the town, as it claimed so many others this year.

After standing for a month in all but two of Niota’s 90 houses, the Mississippi has retreated significantly. Now, the full extent of the damage is apparent. What 7-year-old Bailie Siemens calls “our old life” is over. And, as all through the flood zones of the Upper Midwest, the new life has not yet taken shape.

Though volunteers have arrived from Pennsylvania, Kentucky and elsewhere to labor alongside the townsfolk, some big questions must be answered before cleanup can proceed much further.

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Some say it’s best to move, either all together to a nearby ridge or, more realistically, scattered among upland communities. Others say they’ll stay and comply with requirements to raise their houses several feet. They will trudge up several dozen steps to the front door, if that’s what it takes.

Most wonder if they should do anything at all just yet, since they don’t know if, or when, their levee will be repaired. They’ve heard talk of more floodwater this fall and next spring.

On just one point can everyone agree. They say they really can’t afford any of the options, even with government aid.

The talk is the same in the dry garage to the north that now serves as Pontoosuc City Hall and in the community center up in Henderson County where the displaced of Shokokon can drop in for food and supplies. The discussion is repeated at each stop the big shredder makes, in Andalusia near the Quad Cities, in Keithsburg, in Hull south of Quincy. Scores of hamlets in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas are also deciding their fates.

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“You hear about the vanishing American farm,” said Carol Hogan, who owned a Niota antique shop. “On the river, it’s going to be the vanishing American small town.”

The big decision to be made here, as elsewhere, is this: Would it be harder to rebuild or to let go?

This century-old, working-class village of 160 people was never particularly quaint nor picturesque. But most of the simple structures of Niota were tidy, the gardens well-tended. And, though there are a few people who don’t get along with others, it is a true community.

Until the Mississippi came to town, many residents lived within sight of the homes in which they were born. They felt secure leaving for the day without locking their doors. Young and old, men and women turned out to bolster the levee all spring and summer as the water rose. During the flood, they put cat food and water on the roofs for stranded pets.

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Work camp prisoners who helped with sandbagging in July thought the place was special, too. They still sing as they keep at the task downriver: “They say down in Niota/The people are mighty fine/They feed me twice a day/And now they’re friends of mine.” The townspeople are trying to get the state’s permission to host the inmates again, this time for a formal day of thanks.

Such an event would have to be held in the Appanoose Faith Presbyterian Church, untouched on the high ground east of Niota. Since the land in town reappeared a few weeks ago, most of the buildings have been gutted by their owners, who are living elsewhere.

The warped hardwood floors stand up on end while molds of many colors flower on the walls. An oil slick left greasy stripes on the exteriors near the top of first-floor windows.

Outdoors, the greenery is gone. Drying mud furrowed by truck tire tracks has replaced the lawns. The needles of spruces and the leaves of apple trees and hard maples have withered.

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While people debate the petroleum-stripping merits of Mr. Clean versus Capt. Shine, they conduct a running internal dialogue.

“I just can’t do this alone,” said Joan Boddeker, a widow who has lived 42 of her 63 years in a white house on the main drag, Highway 96. She will go.

Minutes later, she asked herself aloud: “Then why am I bleaching the walls?” She will stay.

There are so many competing voices with so many compelling arguments.

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“If it costs $1 million a mile to fix a levee, and we have 4 1/2 miles of levee here, it would be cheaper if the government just bought this out and made it a state park,” said Allen Sommerfeld, who owns a rental house and a tavern.

“We won’t condemn the land,” said David C. Leffler, chairman of the board of supervisors of Hancock County, where Niota is located. “But what good have we done them? How often can you go back and help in a situation similar to this?”

“The thing we all have to keep in mind, though,” said Lynn Farr, who is acting as a town spokesman at various meetings. “This was a freak situation.”

The only decisive act so far was that of Rick and Mary Rea, the first to demolish a flood-damaged house.

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At first, Rick wanted to try to repair their place. After all, they had spent more than half their lives there. Both Reas are 47.

The house came up for sale shortly after he and Mary wed. They bought the place, took in boarders for a while and slowly renovated. They raised their now-grown children, Ricky and Andrea, there.

They stayed in the house when Rick stopped working at the grain elevator across the street and got a job in highway maintenance for the state Department of Transportation. They lived there while she ran the nearby Feedlot Cafe. He indulged his passion for stock car racing. She collected cobalt glass.

The house was huge, with 15 rooms, three of which they never did go in until they had to pack up as the levee failure loomed. The former owner had left dozens of antiques there; they found an 1896 marriage certificate in a drawer.

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Upon her return after the waters went down, Mary dispelled Rick’s fond hopes. “We can’t fix this, don’t you see?” she said. “I don’t want this. It stinks. When it rains, the stink will come back.”

He told her: “It won’t be as hard as you think.”

She retorted: “Don’t I get any say in this at all?”

Then Rick heard at work that the state--indeed, his own department--would be bringing in the shredder to help rid the town of its ruins before the rats could move in. He realized he could save $2,000 or more in hauling costs if they wrecked the house while the compactor was there. When he heard the machine would be leaving soon, he decided the time had come.

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On a warm, breezy Sunday, they attached cables to their daughter Andrea’s boyfriend’s 1979 half-ton pickup and pulled the house down in eight hours. Water ran out of the walls as they crashed to the ground. Fifteen people helped and most of the rest of town came by to watch.

Mary developed a headache and had to retreat to their temporary quarters, her brother’s house in the bluff-top town of Nauvoo to the south. Rick spray-painted “House for Sale Cheap $50 Lakefront Property” on the walls and joked as the new roof he’d painstakingly hammered finally fell in a heap.

Ricky’s wife videotaped the demolition. Next morning, on the job, Rick drove a loader to his property and shoveled the remains into the back of a dump truck, shredder-bound.

They felt like they’d pulled the plug on a long-suffering relative--at once relieved and bereaved.

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Mary went up to the church, where she has been overseeing the preparation of meals cooked with donated food for anyone who needs a bite to eat. A crowd of friends burst into tears when they saw her. “I don’t think they wanted to face it,” she said, her own eyes moist at the memory.

The Reas have been shopping for mobile homes, and they’ve seen a model they like. Ideally, they’d live in it on their old home site, surrounded by the same neighbors and friends.

But with no timetable on levee repair, they’re not hurrying. They also haven’t been able to find out if they’ll have to build a higher foundation to get an occupancy permit.

At a recent town meeting at the church, Rick told county officials that he would just move the mobile home if another flood threatened, so why require him to build a high foundation?

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“I’m looking into that,” replied Leffler.

Like all the officials who have taken the church podium at the weekly gatherings, Leffler had as many questions as the residents did. “I can’t answer that,” he kept saying.

Despite a trip to the state capital of Springfield, he, too, was unsure of how best to enforce local guidelines passed in 1980 under federal pressure. The rules mandate that to rebuild in a flood plain, a structure that is 50% damaged must be elevated above the level of a 100-year flood.

In Illinois, local governments have a choice of defining the damage in terms of a building’s market value--which is now very depressed--or its replacement value. The selection may influence whether many citizens of Niota, which is unincorporated, must jack up their homes. Raising a house can cost $10,000 or more.

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“You can’t afford to borrow enough money to raise your house and fix it at the same time,” Rick Rea said. “You can only do one or the other.”

“My question is,” Leffler said, “if you don’t raise your house, what did you gain?” if the river comes out of its banks again.

To Carol Hogan, these were fighting words. She stood up to speak. “To me, it’s like they’re trying to make it as hard as they can, as difficult as they can, as expensive as they can so people will just go away . . . " she said. “If everybody moves, who’s gonna fight that flood? Who’s gonna protect the railroad and the Amoco pipeline?”

Leffler had expected the anger. Indeed, he said later, he’d received a few telephoned warnings to stay away from the meeting because everyone was so upset.

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He sympathized. But it was time, he said, to consider the town’s history of floods.

Its very name, scholars say, is Iowa tribe dialect for “much water” or “water’s mouth.”

“The river spreads over much of the town site when the stage of water is high,” states the Niota entry in a 1968 history of Hancock County, “and causes it to be undesirable for either residence or business purposes.”

In 1946, before the levee was built, an ice jam at the bridge that links the town with Ft. Madison, Iowa, sent several inches of the Mississippi into Niota’s homes.

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In 1960, 1965 and 1973, the sandbag brigades were out in force to keep the water from surging in.

But never, the old-timers say, was the damage anything like this year’s. The river set records for crests from Minnesota to the southern tip of Illinois.

Leffler thinks it was no aberration but the start of a trend. The river, he said, has changed.

“Thirty years ago, it was deep water here,” he said. These days, “there’s not as much room for the water. (Just) before the flood, there were lily pads between Niota and Nauvoo.” He blames the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for dredging out the main channel for barge traffic but letting the sides silt up near the banks. “You can raise the levee three to five feet, but in 20 years it’ll be right back to where it is today,” he said.

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He is not the only one who backs this theory; indeed, opinion within the Corps itself is divided. Some Corps inspectors think the entire riverbed should be dredged. Among them is the liaison to Niota, Jim Farris. “I have a real feeling for these people,” he said.

But dredging costs money. And even if it had been done for years, this year’s flood would have wrought major destruction.

There’s only one way to react to all the confusion.

“Hmmmmm,” mused Kevin Siemens at the church one morning. “I could raise my house, and put it over a garage with doors on both ends,” he drawled. “Then when the river comes up, I could open the doors and let the water go through.”

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He laughed, and so did Donald Lucas on the next folding chair. But when Siemens drove over to his house in town to salvage some bathroom shelves, his tone turned bitter.

“Wouldn’t you say it’s kind of totaled?” he asked, waving a hand around the place. Each square of kitchen linoleum curled up at the edges. There was mold on the Indian-design stencil work that Siemens’ wife, Lisa, spent days drawing at the top of the dining room walls. The new windows had leaked and insect eggs dotted the glass.

That was the least of it. Siemens, 37, a millwright for a contractor, knows what’s in store. “Come winter, the moisture will freeze,” he said. “These houses are going to twist on their foundations.”

He plans to follow the Reas’ lead: “I have access to a bulldozer.”

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But not yet. “It’s just too soon,” Lisa Siemens, 32, said later.

It’s too soon because she is afraid that the cost of rebuilding will be prohibitive. It is a common fear in this town of prison guards, factory hands and retirees.

“My job’s not steady,” Lisa Siemens said, sighing. For 11 years, she has built semi-trailers at the Fruehauf factory in Ft. Madison. Lately, the hours have dwindled--half-days, three-day weeks. “And Kevin’s job is crazy.”

Some comfort comes from the volunteers, like the five men from Indiana who helped Lisa take the ceiling fans down and the sodden carpets up, or the five city workers from Wood Dale, a Chicago suburb, who showed up with hauling equipment. Three teens from Washington Crossing, Pa., gave up plans for a theme park visit to help.

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Then there was Charlie Foster, who lives in a flood plain, too, along the Mad River in Ohio. He laid a ruler from his town to the Mississippi on a map and it landed by Niota. So he collected gas money from neighbors and drove his dump truck and loader here for a week.

He stayed at the campground and took a shower occasionally at the rented, three-bedroom house in Nauvoo, where Joan Boddeker is staying with two daughters and three grandchildren, all flood victims.

Boddeker used to love the river. The Boddekers ran a boat business in town and until this year, when the water rose in April and never seemed to come down, Joan spent every weekend cruising the Mississippi.

Now that river has her wondering if she’ll ever live again in the place her husband, who died five years ago, would never leave. Neal Boddeker--"Dude” to the town--was born in Niota and became its postmaster. Once he was asked to transfer for a few years and he told his supervisors, “If it’s compulsory, here’s my resignation.” They let him stay.

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She roamed the skeleton of her house and changed her mind, and changed her mind again. Six Boddeker kids grew up here and that blond brood begat another generation of towheads, all gathering for Christmases and Halloweens. Gone is the little brick fireplace where they all toasted frankfurters. Her mother’s old sewing machine, disintegrated, was consigned to the shredder. So were her home-canned tomatoes, beets, green beans and watermelon pickle.

But the ash tree, still cradling a child’s fort in its branches, survived. Looking to it for comfort, Joan Boddeker had a revelation.

“Look at this,” she said quietly. A few new blades of grass were pushing through the defoliated loam next to the roots of the ash. “Maybe,” she said, beaming, “maybe there is life in the old town yet, by God.”


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