Monday, June 9, 2008


Note: The following research on the 2008 mudslide in the small town of Grafton, Illinois was conducted in mid-April. The onslaught of rain that caused the mudslide tapered off eventually, and although the rainfall totals didn’t break any records, it wasn’t an event anyone was likely to forget. Now that the rains have returned, soaking the Midwest and causing flooding in Missouri, Illinois, Central Indiana and Michigan, the mudslide serves as a renewed metaphor for catastrophe.

Perhaps the most troublesome sign yet came June 9, when an embankment around a man-made lake in Wisconsin disintegrated, flushing several homes and a 245-acre body of water into the Wisconsin River. That water is destined to drain into the Mississippi River, where it will undoubtedly have some kind of impact downstream in towns just like Grafton. In hindsight, the events of April can be looked at in foreboding of water and disaster in the months to come.

Birds of prey shared the sky with a setting sun, circling not very high above the rock formations. The sun made shadows out of the birds, making the details indistinguishable and the species unnamable. And yet, at the same time, all the intricate details of the rock formations were bursting, chiseled into being by the sun’s last bit of glow.

This was the theme on Illinois highway 100, also known as the Great River Road. Bursting. Bursting the way the waters did over the levees and sandbags a decade and a half ago. On this east bank of the Mississippi river, that is, the Illinois side of the Missouri/ Illinois border, the earth seemed to burst from the east, as if harboring an urge to be taken again by the water.

Traveling up the River Road, the sign came into view. Grafton. Population 608. The four-lane highway merged into two lanes and the speed dropped from 55 to 40 to 30. The water park was the first thing; Raging Rivers with its two giant bowl-shaped slides. It would be another five weeks until visitors would slide down those bowls and crash into the pool at the bottom, on Memorial Day. After the water park, highway 100 became the main street, with vinyl-sided bungalows, an Amoco sign, weathered taverns, and corner stores.

There were houses on stilts on the river side of the main drag. A birdfeeder in someone’s back yard jutted from the water. The river encroached on the land bit by bit, making marsh out of whatever land it could grab. A few trees… there and there, showed what couldn’t be seen with bare eyes: that there was actually land under there.

At the O-Jan’s Fish Market, there was a line on the outside of the building where the water crested during the great flood of 1993. It marked 38 feet above the river bank. Further along 100, to the north end of town, near the marina, cars slowed down to look. Others, the people that didn’t know what lay ahead, didn’t notice and kept driving. Some stopped and pulled over to get a better look.

“I wanted to see it for myself,” a grey-haired man said, taking a few steps out of his white, late-model Ford sedan.

He looked over at the side of the cliff, where the earth gave way. Trees were caught up in the slide, with roots and limbs poking out from the ground. Cement blocks the size of hay bales were put at the base, not five yards from the road, to block the progress of the slide. A homemade sign read “Free Fill.”

Dirt clods littered the road, the only indication that the dirt had threatened to take over two weeks before. It was April Fool’s Day when the mud came down the 75-foot face, soaked with flooding waters, taking up two house lots’ worth of space and closing the main thoroughfare through the town.

But now the pile was dormant and crusty. It hadn’t rained for a week.

“It looks like more rock and gravel than mud,” the man said. “This stuff didn’t happen in ’93. It just flooded. This is more like California.”

It did have some passing resemblance; there were the newly built houses atop the crags, called Grafton Hills. These were formidable mansions that had large panes of windows so that people could see where the Mississippi and Illinois came together, high above the stilted houses.

A red SUV, license plate “GRAFTN,” was parked on the gravel road that exited the marina. The driver extended his neck to get a better view of the slide, and stared at it like that for some time.

Back closer to the marina, thirty seven-year old Grafton City Police Officer Travis Trinty watched from his squad car.

“I’m just doing what I’m told,” he said. “I’m trying to make sure nobody does anything stupid like trying to climb that thing.”

March had been an extremely wet month, breaking all previous rainfall records. The last record, according to St. Louis meteorologists, was eight-point-twenty-five inches of rainfall, set more than one hundred ten years ago. This year’s March rain brought eight-point-forty inches.

Trinty explained the trickling noise coming from the pile of earth.

“A spring developed there for about three years and quit,” he said. “At the base of that cliff up there, there’s a retaining pond. They think the dam was so saturated, that maybe that retaining pond along with the spring underneath the road… with all that mud coming down…”

He pointed to a house at the base of the slide, a two-story house with dirt wrapped around the base.

“The lady there, she don’t even know if her insurance will cover the damage. She had water and mud in her house, but I don’t think it did any structural damage to it.”

In the Telegraph, Alton’s newspaper, they reported the woman’s name as Joanne Groves of 510 W. Main Street… Highway 100… Great River Road. They also printed that her house had survived the flood of ’93, a fire, and a tractor-trailer hitting her front porch and damaging her roof. But at 9 a.m. on April Fools, her son-in law came in and told her that the bluff surrounding her house had collapsed. She told the paper she heard nothing the night of the slide.

All the papers wanted a picture of her next to it. In Alton’s Telegraph, she was standing on top of the mud as it came into the back of her home, lurching in like a burglar made of earth. St. Louis’ Post Dispatch, she was pictured looking away from the mud slide, with its long trail of rocks and trees creeping towards her from behind.

April 7, at a meeting with city and state officials to discuss what to do about the mud, she reportedly walked away, repeating “I’m sick,” and spent the rest of the day at one of Grafton’s bed and breakfasts that offered her a free room.

April 11, s was treated at the intensive care unit of a hospital in Alton for a perforated stomach ulcer. Following surgery, her blood pressure dropped, triggering kidney failure. Her doctors put her on a ventilator and told her she might die.

“I hope she gets better,” Trinty said. “I know a little bit more but I hate to say it because I don’t know if it’s the truth. I just know it was related to the stress of the house, of course, you know, an ulcer.”

Trinty pointed to the power lines hanging over the crusted pile of earth.

“And that’s the main power line to Grafton,” he said.

“It’s going to cost money to have it done. And you have the city, and the county and the state and whoever’s gotta work it out. When somebody does make a decision, they’re responsible if it doesn’t work out, or if it does come down and destroys her house.”

And then there was the possibility of fender-benders from gawkers paying more attention to the landscape than the road.

“That’s what we’re worried about when the road is open and busy,” he said. “In the summer when it’s busy, it would be backed up from there all the way out to Raging Rivers. Everybody wants to come to Grafton in the summertime.”

Starting Memorial Day weekend, Trinty said, Grafton goes into full-on resort mode. A town of seven hundred becomes a town of three thousand. That’s when the county and state send in reinforcements. Most of the problems, he said, come from the out-of-towners.

“In the summertime, you got shit happening all during the day,” he said. “People getting naked down there on the boats. You watch Cops on Mardi Gras, right? You can’t be dancing around naked when we got kids walking around. We don’t want to tell you not to take your top down any more than the next guy standing there looking at you, but we got a job to do.”

He nodded in the direction of the marina, where the walkways to the floating structure were submerged.

“They’ll do it right here in the marina. In the loading dock, people get ignorant in there and get to drinking. The local people we don’t have any problems with, they take care of their own.”

Another SUV approached the mounds, slowed, and drove off.

Being from Jerseyville, farther inland, Trinty didn’t see much action when the ’93 floods happened. He did faintly recall moving things from the upstairs of his friends’ girlfriends’ parents’ house in a boat. And how, at the fertilizer plant where he worked at the time, they rigged a machine to fill bags with sand instead of fertilizer. And how the waters that the experts said would never come demolished a Victorian-styled farmhouse belonging to his uncle.

“The thing I find interesting was my boss told me that what’s going on right now with the weather and the waters is on the same exact track as what it did in ’93,” he said. “They’re not predicting it could happen. But the river isn’t supposed to drop more than a foot this week. It was supposed to crest at twenty-five-five. They lowered it Saturday morning to twenty-three-five. That’s what we have now. It’s not supposed to drop that much, and with all the rain and the snow melting up north, it may get up higher. When, I don’t know.”

Sometimes when he watches the mud, Trinty said, he plays solitaire on the squad car’s laptop. His other duties for the evening were to check to see if the doors on the local businesses were locked. That included Raging Rivers, where even locals would get drunk and break into.

“One guy they caught a couple of years ago is now dating my sister,” he said. “Like, what are you doing breaking into Raging Rivers after they shut the water off?”

Trinty said he previously studied CAD but couldn’t find any good paying jobs. He was a truck driver until he went into the academy.

“You always hear about that on the TV, with the self-help gurus. They always say you’re not living until you enjoy your job,” he said. “I’m hoping this is what my calling is.”

When his time ran out, he put his squad car in drive. His tires crunched over the gravel as he went out of the marina, down highway 100 to rest and wait for the speeders. The streetlights began to flicker on, but it was still too dark to make out the river that was invisible except for the lights of the barges that proved it was actually there.

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