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'65 Flood

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Fortunately for the city of Rock Island, someone in charge must have remembered reading Tom Sawyer back in eighth grade. Especially the chapter where Tom cons his buddies into whitewashing the fence for him. It saved the town.

By the end of March that year, it was apparent that the Mississippi was going to flood, and flood big.  Surveillance began the first week in April, as the Corps of Engineers predicted a crest 4 and a half feet above flood stage. On April 12th, the river at Rock Island rose an ominous 1.1 feet in 24 hours. The crest was revised upward. Sandbagging operations began to shore up weak dikes.

The flood waters rose relentlessly as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army set up emergency shelters. After another 2 and a half inches of rain on April 23rd, downtown businessmen were warned that the water-soaked dike protecting Rock Island would give way in less than ten hours. Most of the city lay on a flat plain below the bluffs, and it would all be flooded.

Then the flood fighters noticed something odd. Among the professionals were several hundred high school students playing hooky from classes for the thrill of filling sandbags. They were having the same kind of fun Tom Sawyer's friends had whitewashing that fence.

And so Rock Island's secret weapon was unleashed against the flood: teenagers. On April 26th, as the dike broke at the J. I. Case Plant, local schools and colleges suspended classes and sent their students to fight the flood. Students flocked to the riverfront like lemmings. Teenagers normally used to sleeping until noon, eating every two hours, and too tired to wash the dishes worked around-the-clock to repair dikes and watch for sand boils. The sandbag dike they erected under Centennial Bridge saved the town.

The '65 Flood crested on April 28th at a record 22 and a half feet. Another week, and it might have been a different story. By then, the teenagers might have remembered Tom Sawyer themselves, and realized they had been at work rather than at play.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.