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Grafton faces an ‘uphill battle’ in recovering from recent flooding, mayor says

Mississippi River rising in Grafton and Alton

Flooding scenes from Alton and Grafton, Illinois where the Mississippi river is rising. The river is expected to crest at almost 32 feet Monday May 6th, 2019 in Grafton, 6 feet below the historic 1993 flood.
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Flooding scenes from Alton and Grafton, Illinois where the Mississippi river is rising. The river is expected to crest at almost 32 feet Monday May 6th, 2019 in Grafton, 6 feet below the historic 1993 flood.

The city of Grafton has been hit once again by flooding from the confluence of the same two rivers — the Illinois and Mississippi — that provide its scenic views.

On Tuesday night, the Mississippi reached its crest in Grafton at 32.1 feet. Residents, business owners and community leaders had thought the worst of the flooding would be over when the river crested the last weekend of April, then dropped to “manageable levels,” Mayor Rick Eberlin said.

But river levels suddenly rose three more feet, due to heavy rainfall in other parts of the state.

“We’ve never seen a three foot rise before,” Eberlin, who was sworn into office in 2017, said Wednesday. “The rivers were just screaming up.”

Grafton lies between the confluence and steep bluffs, with nothing but two acres of wetlands to protect homes and businesses. They don’t absorb heavy flood waters that usually carry large debris.

The 4,000 sandbags the city had offered to residents of the town for personal use had been moved up to Hardin in Calhoun County earlier this week. Calhoun County had issued an emergency declaration on Tuesday.

Most of Grafton’s riverfront businesses were closed on Wednesday, and probably won’t reopen until the river levels recede to at least 24 feet, Eberlin said. According to the National Weather Service’s forecast, that’s not likely to happen before Tuesday, May 21. The graphs are likely to change, however, and Eberlin said city officials are constantly monitoring those.

The city’s entire west end was closed. River water on low-lying roads isolate businesses that sit even slightly above the water level.

“When the river levels are high, you can’t get out there unless it’s with a boat,” Eberlin said.

The first business to go under water and the last one to open when waters recede is The Hawg Pit BBQ, a bar and grill Eberlin called a community hub. Though many businesses aside from The Hawg Pit had reopened by Monday, April 29, they had to close again before the first weekend of May, forcing business owners to haul out their valuables, and shut down their electric and plumbing services.

“We’re a tourist town,” Eberlin said. “We do anything possible to keep those businesses open, but you cannot risk life or limb for a dollar.”

Mother’s Day Weekend is usually one of the best of the year for the town economically, Eberlin said. Families come from Missouri and Illinois to visit the river town to enjoy its restaurants, shops, wineries and famous river views.

But Eberlin doesn’t have high hopes that the businesses will reopen by this weekend.

“We face an uphill battle when it comes to recovering this year,” he said. “We hope tourist season extends to the fall. ... When you have to close major intersections and it’s hard to navigate through town, that deters people.”

Eberlin said business owners are always cautious of the potential for flooding, however.

“They know the risks and they’re willing to take them,” he said. “They’re here because they’re invested in the community. The community knows how that affects them too, when businesses have to close.”

Bob Smith, who has lived in Grafton his entire life, said that residents are used to the flooding.

“We’re prepared,” he said, saying home owners like him take precautions like putting stoppers in floor drains in their basements. “We learned a lot from (the historic flood of 1993).”

Smith lives a block down from Main Street, which was mostly closed due to the flooding Wednesday. In the Great Flood of 1993, he said flood waters had reached his front fence and flooded his home, causing plumbing issues. He said the town lost probably half its population in 1993 when citizens lost their homes.

“But we’re prepared now,” he said, saying residents communicate with city officials to know when to begin taking action.

“When you live here, that’s just a part of life,” Smith said.

Eberlin too said that it’s a reality he’s willing to accept to keep living in Grafton.

“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” he said. “When the rivers are in their banks, it’s the most pristine, beautiful place you could live.”

The city has received help from multiple county, state and federal agencies, who will help both physically and economically when the flooding recedes, Eberlin said.

Volunteers can reach out to City Hall at 618-786-3344 to help with clean up efforts, where Eberlin said the most manpower will be needed. Donations of cleaning equipment like power washers and equipment to haul away large debris — like full trees that sometimes wash up into the streets — are needed as well.

Hana Muslic has been a public safety reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat since August 2018, covering everything from crime and courts to accidents, fires and natural disasters. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and her previous work can be found in The Lincoln Journal-Star and The Kansas City Star.