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Clinton Corn: A moment of decision

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Reprinted from the Clinton Corn Processing Company Souvenir Booklet, The Mississippi River Flood April 1965, Clinton, Iowa

At 8:00 P.M. on the 14th of April 1965, a committee of key management personnel met in an extraordinary session to decide what steps should be taken to protect property, buildings and equipment from a predicted crest of twenty-two and one-half feet.

In a previous meeting, the committee had already take steps to protect the buildings and equipment by bricking up doorways and windows and contracting such concrete walls and elevated wooden walkways as might be required. It was anticipated that these measures would permit us to continue operating until such time as we would be unable to move supplies into the plant area and products out to our customers. Beyond that, we were interested in protecting our buildings and equipment from severe water damage. Against this background it was proposed that we construct a dike around the entire plant area so that we could continue operating without interruption.

From an engineering standpoint, the feasibility of building the proposed dike was doubtful from the beginning. The primary difficulty lay in the composition of the soil, on which our plant is situated. It is extremely porous and therefore it was anticipated that as the river rose the tremendous increase in hydrostatic pressure would force the water laterally through the ground.

As a consequence, the area might still become inundated by seepage through sand boils in addition to the problems of constructing a tight mile-long dike in 10 days time. This might occur despite the effectiveness of any dike which might be constructed. Nevertheless, it was decided to launch a maximum effort and build the mile-long dike.

Problems begin to mount

The decision having been made, the management committee found itself confronted with a myriad of questions which had to be answered without delay. How do we go about building a substantial dike? Will we be able to obtain a sufficient number of burlap bags soon enough? Will there be an adequate supply of suitable sand? Will enough help be available to accomplish the task? What equipment will be needed?

Will we have the facilities to feed and equip the extra workers? Can we procure an adequate number of pumps to return seepage water to the river channel? Will we be able to maintain the water level low enough to permit the operation of trucks and trains within the plant area? Will we be able to adequately protect transformers and substations in order to insure an uninterrupted flow of electricity? How are we going to organize the operation to accomplish the task with the greatest possible efficiency? (Efficiency was, indeed, a vital factor as we had very little time to prepare for the flood.)

One by one the questions were resolved. We did in fact find adequate help. Many employees worked on the dike after they completed their regular shift. During the period of crisis, in excess of one-thousand extra workers were employed round the clock — they included many college students who were him for the Easter Holiday as well as area high school students excused for sandbagging during the emergency. We did obtain burlap bags by the semi-truckload — nearly a half million in all — and a thousand truck loads of sand to fill them. The cafeteria never closed its doors during the ten days of the dike building and served during this period nearly 12,000 sandwiches, 7,000 cups of coffee and 6,000 cartons of milk. We purchased nearly 600 pair of hip boots and to facilitate communications between the critical areas of construction obtained walkie-talkies and motor scooters. And we did, indeed, keep the boilers fired up, though we have to draw upon our reserve supply of coal — 44 carloads — because we were isolated from the coal fields of Illinois by the rising Mississippi.

This is not to imply that no additional serious problems arose. Because the traction motors of diesel switch engines lie so close to the ground level, this type of locomotive is unable to operate where the water is more than a few inches deep. To forestall a stoppage in switching operations we purchased a "Trackmobile" and leased a steam locomotive, old "790."

Water did seep laterally through the ground causing not only countless sand boils, through which percolated alarming quantities of water, but also causing some surfaces of the "interior road" to literally sink out of sight, under the beating of a steady stream of heavy vehicles. Nearly 2,500 tons of crushed rock were trucked in to rebuild the road.

Because virtually the entire parking lot was allocated to sand-bag filling operations alternate parking areas had to be developed along Liberty Avenue and personnel had to be recruited to assist in traffic control. The movement of both vehicular and rail traffic was further complicated when the Beaver Channel Parkway access and north gate had to be closed. The north gate house had to be relocated so that semi-trailers might continue to bring in supplies and take products out. At this point, the only remaining access to the CNW marshaling yards was by means of a spur in the vicinity of the oil storage tanks. Both the Trackmobile and old '790' were used to considerable advantage to augment the regular diesel switching engine.

The dike

The backbone of our mile-long dike was one-quarter inch plywood sheeting emplaced about six-inches into the ground and then supported either by steel fence posts or, where feasible, the fence surrounding the plant area.

Dike construction commenced at 12:00 noon on April 15th. Sand bags were laid on the river side of the plywood wall only in sufficient number to seal the juncture between the sheet and the ground. The buildup of sand bags was far more extensive on the opposite side and grew in height and depth as the U.S. Weather Bureau repeatedly revised its predictions. When initially completed on the 25th of April, the dike had an average thickness of twelve feet at the base and an average height of five and one-half feet.

The dike was particularly massive at the north gate where the river had to be turned: to divert it from the plant area. The magnitude of the forces against the dike at this point can be appreciated when it is pointed out that during the crest of the flood 2 1/4 million gallons of water flowed past Clinton each second — this is a volume equivalent to the space enclosed by our General Office Building.

Filling, transporting and laying 420,000 bags of sand is a formidable task under ordinary circumstances. But with only limited time available to complete the dike, it was evident that every possible expedient had to be investigated and exploited. In the beginning it was hoped that sand bag filling could be expedited by using specially designed and constructed hoppers. Unfortunately, these proved impractical because the sand was far too wet to flow freely and as a consequence, workers were forced to the conventional hand shovel method.

The attempt to discover a better way to fill sand bags having failed, other labor-saving methods were desperately sought. Soon it was found that a fork lift truck could be used to considerable advantage to move sand bags to the precise spots they were to be used. Subsequently, a total of three fork lifts were placed into use, moving pallets of bags from the bag-filling area to the dike.

When the job of dike construction was underway, our efforts were directed towards the establishment of organization team with specific individual assignments for flood control beyond a 20 foot stage. This was completed along with personnel selection placed in effect on April 21st. While our inexperienced efforts appeared unorganized at first they were far from ineffective as the spirit of cooperation prevailed in accomplishing our common objective. Regular meetings were held at every shift change and as we gained experience, we began to function like any smooth running organization.

In retrospect

This report, documenting the fight against the 1965 Mississippi River flood, portrays clearly how puny the efforts of man are in comparison with the force of nature. It also illustrates how much in terms of capital, manpower and equipment had to be brought to bear simply to permit survival in the face of potential disaster. This booklet is, in addition, a tribute to those who worked unceasingly for days on end literally without any rest to see a task through to its successful completion. It is indeed a story about PEOPLE!


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