Newspapers Facing Midwest Floods Carry Grim Reports — and Some Good News — Online

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By: Sam Chamberlain

With floods devastating the Midwest all this week, newspapers across the region have adopted a bunker mindset, determined to bring coverage of the floods to their readers at any cost. Whatever coverage cannot be delivered in newsprint is being delivered online, an option newspapers did not have during the last bout of large-scale Midwest flooding in 1993.

The tenor of the online coverage today varies depending on the status of the floods in that particular community.

The coverage on the Web site of the Elsberry (Mo.) Democrat consists of four statements by Lincoln County, Mo., Emergency Operations Command and the Army Corps of Engineers. All four of the releases, dated Thursday afternoon and evening, report the breach of four Mississippi River levees east of the town. “The conditions of the Lincoln County levees are worsening by the hour,” the statement says. “As the levees deteriorate we can expect further breaches throughout the night.”

The larger Lincoln County Journal, published in Troy, Missouri, contains a detailed report by Bob Simmons, the paper’s managing editor. The continuously updated report describes the size of the latest breach (150 feet), and contains a report of the efforts to stem the flood (200 National Guard called in, 250,000 sandbags filled, 175,000 expected to be filled this weekend). The report also contains an update on where emergency shelters are located, and how this flood compares to the famous 1993 flood (it should match or pass that level this weekend, according to Simmons’ report).

Across the river, the Quincy (Illinois) Herald-Whig’s coverage is no less detailed, but contains slightly less alarm. The headline on the paper’s Web site Friday morning read “River dropping after levee breaches.” The report, by staff writer Rodney Hart, described it as “wait-and-see time for the Mississippi River communities[.]”

Hart went on to describe how “river levels are dropping as crest predictions get pushed back … The Quincy crest is expected to be 30.7 feet Sunday morning-more than a foot below previous forecasts of 31.9 feet at 7 a.m. Friday.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the region’s flagship paper, also contains reports of lowered crest predictions, though even the revised predictions for places like Winfield, Missouri, are still considerably higher than those for Quincy. “The Mississippi River is expected to crest in Lincoln County on Tuesday at 36.8 feet,” says Friday’s report by Jessica Bock. “Earlier forecasts had it closer to the record of 39.6 feet in 1993.”

Bock’s report also contains some insight into the situation in small towns: “[A]bout 250 ‘club homes,’ or homes not lived in for the majority of the year, were underwater [in Elsberry].”

In addition to providing information about flood shelters, the Post-Dispatch is providing guidelines for volunteers who are fighting the flood waters this weekend, including a list of Lincoln County locations where volunteers can report. Those guidelines include: “Do not eat or drink anything that has come in contact with floodwater” and volunteers are reminded to “wear sunscreen, work gloves, and sturdy shoes, and bring a shovel if possible.

Both the Quincy and St. Louis papers have provided spaces for readers to send in their flood stories and photos, but in Iowa, where the floodwaters have already dropped, newspapers there are integrating their own content, as well as user content online. The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa has devoted six photo gallaries and eight videos to coverage of various aspects of the flood, from the volunteers, to the devastation itself, to President Bush’s visit there Thursday.

Separate sections of the paper’s website are devoted to coverage of the Cedar River, which flooded Cedar Rapids, and the Iowa River, which flooded (with less damage) the college town of Iowa City, some 30 miles away. A Bulletin Board allows people to post reports of “random acts of kindness,” things lost and found, and to report a missing pet. The Gazette has also used Google Maps to illustrate the breadth of the flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and at the University of Iowa, with pinpoints to illustrate notable buildings that either have flooded or were in danger of flooding.

The Gazette also provides links to aid organizations like FEMA, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, as well as the city governments of Cedar Rapids, Coralville, and Iowa City.

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