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People are coming from as far away as Texas to help Grafton clean up from the flood

Grafton starts cleaning up after two-month long flood

Renee Burgess, of Grafton, IL discusses cleanup efforts at Ruebel Hotel, and throughout Grafton. The area has been hit by flooding since mid-April.
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Renee Burgess, of Grafton, IL discusses cleanup efforts at Ruebel Hotel, and throughout Grafton. The area has been hit by flooding since mid-April.

Sherry Weir got up at 7 a.m. Friday and walked down Grafton’s Main Street to the City Hall, where she didn’t know a single person.

“How can I help?” she asked.

Weir came up from Stephenville, Texas, late Thursday night to help the tourist town begin recovery efforts after flooding from the Mississippi River devastated homes and businesses here in the worst flood since the Great Flood of ’93.

Though she has no connection to the town, Weir felt compelled to help when she heard about the flooding damage. She’s a follower of Marcus Lemonis, a businessman and star of CNBC’s “The Profit,” who tweeted about volunteer opportunities in Grafton on Wednesday.

“I own a small business in a small town, and I thought, ‘how would I feel if I was in this situation?’” she said. “I would want people to help. It’s a global community.”

Lemonis was also in Grafton on Friday but was not immediately available to comment.

Weir joined local volunteers on Friday in emptying the sandbags that had been placed along Main Street to keep floodwaters back, removing contaminated debris and items from flooded basements at businesses and homes, and powerwashing mud off of walls and floors. Those walls and floors will then need to be sanitized with bleach, if the drywall isn’t replaced.

The efforts take a lot of physical manpower, and the town is heavily advertising for volunteers on websites and social media.

According to Mary Lillesve, an alderwoman in the village, much of the equipment for cleanup efforts has come from Lowe’s, which donated pallets for sandbagging at the beginning of the flooding and bleach, powerwashers and gloves now toward the end.

“They really bent over backwards for us,” she said.

Lillesve, along with Alderman Andy Jackson, has taken on the job of overseeing cleanup efforts in town. Grafton set up two forms on the Chamber of Commerce’s website: one where people can submit requests to volunteer and one where residents of the town can submit requests for help.

There were 52 properties under water this year, according to Jackson, most of which were businesses.

“Economically, it’s been a disaster,” she said. “Their revenue is dependent on tourism and it’s been way harsher this year than in the past.

There have been no damage estimates made yet encompassing both property damage and economic impact.

The river crested at 32.10 feet at Grafton on June 7. By Friday, it was down to 29.09 feet; major flood stage is at 29 feet.

Riverfront business owners know flooding is always a possibility

One of the businesses that flooded was the Ruebel Hotel, where volunteers were being directed to empty contents from the basement.

Mo Khamee, who has owned the hotel for 11 years, kept the first two floors of the business open throughout the flooding, but was forced to close the basement, which usually serves as another floor of rooms. He said he sees flooding every year, but this was the worst, reaching 7 feet in the basement.

On Friday, volunteers like Renee Burgess and Weir, who is staying at the hotel until she leaves Sunday, were removing the items that had stayed in the basement throughout the flooding, including a refrigerator that was floating in the foot-and-a-half of dirty water that remained.

“Thank God I’ve got a good bank manager,” Khameee said, keeping a sense of humor despite the zero income he’s made in the last two months.

Though he knows this is always a possibility on the riverfront, he said he wouldn’t want to move anywhere else.

“Life is a challenge,” he said. “Luckily I have a love affair with my job.”

And even though it’s “demoralizing” for business owners to realize the uphill battle they face, Khamee said, the community comes together to help each other out.

“We’re hopeful to bounce back by July Fourth weekend,” Khamee said. “This town is committed to providing the best for tourists.

A thunderstorm dropped heavy rain on the town Friday afternoon, forcing some of the cleanup efforts to pause. Gary Conrad, a trustee who helps operate the United Methodist Church on Main Street, opened up part of the church for volunteers to take shelter.

The church is the oldest one in Jersey County at 185 years old, according to Conrad. The mostly older congregation loves how much history there is in the church, so having to travel 12 miles to a sister parish’s church for services for the last month isn’t ideal.

“It’s been hard on us,” he said.

When flooding entering the basement a few weeks ago, 69-year-old Conrad and another 80-year-old took on the task of moving boxes filled with documents, books, decorations and tools upstairs to the first floor. Thankfully, the furnace and air-conditioning units of the old building were salvaged.

“It’s all worth saving,” Conrad said.

Grafton still has a long way to go as its recovery efforts are just beginning.

“The river comes up in feet, but goes down by inches,” Alderman Jackson said.

And until water recedes enough to reopen Main Street, which runs along Illinois 100, tourists are unlikely to visit, as navigating the town is so hard. The spots where the road is closed off has isolated the town into three parts.

“It’s like islands surrounded by floodwater,” Lillesve said.

More volunteers are needed to help Grafton clean up

As the recovery efforts continue, more volunteers will be needed to get the town up and running to its usual summertime boom.

Volunteers like Weir, who were saddened by how the community was struggling.

“A lot of people look genuinely fearful of their futures and have genuinely thanked me for coming,” she said. “They’re goodhearted, earnest people, and honestly I feel blessed to be able to help them in some way.”

Those who wish to volunteer can fill out a form at graftonilchamber.com to sign up or call Grafton City Hall at 618-786-3344 — or just show up.

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.
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