5/1/2013 10:57:00 AM Fast work saves Wabash levee on Indiana side
Island Levee Conservancy President Joe Esslinger explains to a TV news crew how volunteers and inmates from the Indiana Department of Corrections used 4,000 sandbags to plug a levee leak over the weekend. The leak was about one-quarter mile east of the Hutsonville bridge. (Tom Compton photo)
Extraordinary efforts by an area levee conservancy and volunteers may have saved millions of dollars in damage, and possibly lives, over the weekend as they struggled to fill a breach in the Island Levee east of the Hutsonville Bridge.
Thursday evening Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency, the Island Levee Conservancy and Indiana Department of Transportation decided to close Indiana Highway 154 between Grayville and the Hutsonville bridge overnight as a section of the levee north of the old Ameren power station was in danger of breaking. Officials were afraid the levee could give way at night, endangering residents or travelers.
Conservancy members and volunteers shored up the levee with sandbags, and it was deemed secure. The road was reopened Friday morning, and remained open until Saturday afternoon when a leak was discovered in the levee just feet from the highway.
According to Sullivan County EMA Director Jim Pirtle, while checking the levee about a quarter mile east of the bridge, it was discovered that water was coming though a previously sandbagged area next to the highway. Conservancy volunteers dropped straw and sandbags into a hole that was forming on the river side of the levee to test how fast it was coming through.
"They dropped straw in first and it came right out," Pirtle said. "Then they dropped a blue ribbon in, and not 20 seconds later it popped out the other side."
Conservancy volunteers dropped straw bales and more than 100 sandbags into the hole, and the material was quickly swallowed up. Exhausted, the volunteers evacuated and called INDOT to close the highway.
On Sunday, more than 30 volunteers and 27 inmates from the Indiana Department of Corrections were at work filling and dumping around 4,000 sandbags into the hole.
Conservancy President Joe Esslinger explained how sandbags were filled along the road, then carried in a tractor bucket to the top of the levee, then passed hand-to-hand about 20 yards before being dumped into the hole.
Receding waters are taking some of the pressure off the levee, and after an inspection of the weekend's work, the highway was reopened at noon Monday.
Pirtle said there's no telling what kind of destruction would have resulted from a levee break. The proximity to the highway would undoubtedly have washed it away, possibly all the way to the river bridge. While there were no homes in the direct path, a break could have washed out the already-weakened levee farther south, releasing even more water on an unpredictable path.
The forecast calls for clear skies until Thursday, when rain will again enter area.
Esslinger said they will continue to monitor the entire levee, but will have to wait until later this summer when the river is completely down before any significant repairs can be made.