Sandbagging Along the Mississippi

by Joe Dobrow ©1993


Almost overnight, Grand Tower, Illinois has become a one-industry town. The industry is sand.

Brewster Brothers saw mill has temporarily shut down, and the Post Office has moved to higher ground. The bank is closed, even though it is mid-morning. Back yard swing sets are still, porches are empty.

But down by the public works building, just about 50 yards from the levee that is still somehow holding off the rising Mississippi River, there is more activity than this town of 800 has ever known. Dump trucks and flatbeds roll in and out, forklifts pivot and rumble. Dozens of volunteers are shoveling sand, holding bags, tying them off, stacking them on palettes — an endless, repetitive, Sisyphean task: as soon as one six-foot high pile of sand is dwindled down to a low hump, in rolls another dump truck, and a sarcastic groan goes up from the volunteers.

And over on First Street, along the levee, there are dozens more volunteers — mostly striking coalminers — plus the Air National Guard, stacking the sandbags one on top of the other, hoping to stave off the inevitable crest of the Mississippi that will come, when, three days from now, four days from now? We do not know.


I have come here from my home in Northern Virginia for a week of sandbagging, as much out of curiosity and adventure as anything else. My lack of altruism shows, I guess, because I somehow find a way to hint in nearly every conversation with my fellow volunteers that I am no “local.” Still, I manage to make it onto the evening news, The Typical Volunteer Who Has Come A Long Way To Help. I find that I can sound as contrite as anyone when the camera is rolling. So I spend the morning bagging sand, drinking an inhuman volume of water, and being acutely aware of my incongruous status in this curious little subculture that is developing for a day about 90 miles downriver from St. Louis.

At one point a couple of truckloads of the Air National Guard arrive in fatigues, and a little boy next to me asks his father in a whisper, “Dad, are they slaves?” I laugh a little bit, but know where the sentiment came from: working on another sandpile a few yards away are two dozen inmates from a nearby prison, their tattoos and rippling muscles and striped pants — and guards — very much in evidence. Among those working by my side are two teenagers from Marion, IL, a group from the First Baptist Church, and some local farmers. We have little in common except that we are all thankful we are not working with the inmates. Yes, it’s a community feeling, but as long as the rising waters are still a few days away there is still time for some segregation.

I think about all of these things — how far I’ve come to help, how I have perhaps never before been part of an activity that so cuts across class and cultural lines. But now it is afternoon, and out here on the levee none of that matters. It is hot, searingly hot, so hot you can just about hear the heat, and we are working very hard. Bare chests and bandannas are everywhere.

We form a line to unload the trucks, passing the 30- or 40-lb. sandbags from one man to the next, and then laying them down just so: three on the bottom row, two in the middle row, one on the top. Then we fold a huge sheet of plastic over the top, and weight it down with still more sandbags. We are trying to “raise the levee” by adding about three feet of sandbags to the top of it, and the feeling is very much like what I suspect raising a barn was like. It isn’t so much spirit — these coalminers, in particular, are rather grim, stout souls who have been out on strike since May 10 — as determination: this work has to get done, so we will do it. We have all seen the pictures of Davenport, IA and Alton, IL, and we are determined to do our best to prevent Grand Tower from joining their unfortunate ranks, even though many of us may never have been to Grand Tower before and are not likely to return.

Deep down, I know that I am not one of them. Driving out here, I chuckled derisively when I saw the sign outside nearby Murphysboro: “1992 World Barbecue Grand Champions.” Would anyone else here laugh at that, I wonder? I am from Washington, DC, I work behind a desk, I have an MBA; the guys next to me are 40-something coalminers, proud members of the UMWA who have probably worked underground since their high school days. But out here that needn’t stand between us. We are all links in a chain, and in the endless repetition and sense of determination and hot sun we are bound by a fellowship of sweat. Nothing more is needed.

“Heavy one!” someone yells from near the truck, and I hear the echo of “heavy one…heavy one…heavy one” until I feel the weight of an unusually full sandbag flung into my arms. And then I hear my own voice: “Heavy one!” It goes on and on.

This is my third day of sandbag duty and my muscles are beginning to ache (bend at the knees, I must consciously remind myself), but the sandbags keep coming, one after another after another, and everyone else is still working hard, so I do not give in. Still, there are so many of these sandbags that I wonder whether they will — or should — ever be removed once the waters recede.


It is remarkable how this region has banded together to fight the floods. Everything is changed. Out on the highway it seems that nearly every kind of industrial vehicle has been appropriated for one purpose or another. National Guardsmen sit in sky blue tents at many rural intersections, blocking off traffic to flooded roads. Repaving crews and bridge repair teams scurry about everywhere. In between Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks tunes on the radio, there are frequent calls for volunteers. Their regular jobs not withstanding, many people seem to have heeded those calls.

Each day presents a new and startling American tableau, as I encounter people who — there is no doubt at all — are much tougher than I. In Prairie Du Rochers, IL, a rock-solid man named Lyle Matthews gives me a ride in his pickup out to the levee to help sandbag. He tells me that he is a farmer whose fields are under water. “This season is lost, and we probably won’t be able to plant next spring either. I’ll just have to find some way to make a living between now and then.” He smiles while he says this.

In Ste. Genevieve, MO, there are hand-written signs a block from the levee saying “RESTRICTED AREA, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. VIOLATORS WILL BE ARRESTED.” Another sign in front of a restaurant says “STE. GENEVIEVE LEVEE, EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD.” I stop for a while to join volunteers sandbagging in the parking lot of the Catholic school, but when the wind and the rains come, blowing sand and sandbags and hats every which way, we must retreat. Most everyone gathers under the awning of a grocery store, watching the rain form into mini-rivers in the street, bubbling out of over-filled storm drains and sewers and cascading right past the RESTRICTED AREA signs toward the levee. They sip their Cokes and wait.

I cannot imagine how these people endure the disruptions, the hard work, the uncertainty of whether their efforts will save their homes.


Now it is Wednesday, and I have decided to get a little bit closer to the front lines.

So far, I haven’t had to use the hip boots or waders that I bought before I left Washington, because I really haven’t been that close to the water. I have seen it in the distance, and heard its swift whoooooooosh, but I have not been in danger, have not seen damage first hand, have not had to worry about getting a tetanus booster.

But today I drive down to Thebes, IL, a town even smaller than Grand Tower. I have already seen pictures of bobbing rooftops that were taken in Thebes, so this would seem to be a good place to get close to the action.

I turn off Highway 3, edge past the signs that say “ROAD CLOSED” and “WATER ON PAVEMENT,” and descend into Thebes. The first house I come upon has a newly-installed Mississippi tidal basin for a back yard. A white Pontiac is jutting up out of the water at a 45-degree angle. Whew.

Rounding the corner I come upon a row of old, slightly dilapidated houses on my left, billeted by walls of sandbags — and the Mississippi River on my right. No more than 25 feet separates the two.

The scene is breathtaking, beautiful, frightening. The water extends out almost as far as the eye can see, with trees bobbing up like small shrubs, the tops of stop signs peaking above the rapidly flowing water, propane tanks floating like some Brobdingnabian buoys. Apparently, these did not used to be waterfront houses.

“Can I lend you a hand?” I ask a group of three people unloading sandbags from the back of a pickup truck to form a low wall at the edge of the road, near the water.

“Well, sure,” says one of the three, a woman of about 60 with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “We’re about done with this load, but he’s going off to haul in another. You can help him.” And she points to one of the others, a crusty looking fellow, perhaps 65 or 70, with matted hair, worn blue jeans and a badly stained white t-shirt.

“Hop in,” he says, “and see how the other half lives.”

Leaving my wallet and camera and watch on the seat of my rental car, the windows wide open and the keys on the seat, I join him. I have only been in Thebes for two minutes, but I instantly know that it will be unnecessary — indeed, downright insulting — to lock the car. This is going to be a true adventure.

My companion in the pickup, who will become my companion for the entire morning, is a man named Thomas Earl Hale, known to the other half-dozen or so townspeople whose acquaintances I make simply as “Tom Earl.” Navy veteran, Army veteran, retired carpenter and roofer and crane operator and pilot and corrections counselor and God knows what else, he is more or less in charge of the sandbagging operation in Thebes. This is by virtue of the fact that he has been there for a lifetime, and can recite for you, chapter and verse, the exact crest heights and water levels from every flood dating back to 1943.

Indeed, the man is a walking encyclopedia of disaster information. He tells me about the tornadoes of 1946. He tells me how many people were killed (nine) in the Hercules Powder explosion of 1948. While we are driving the 10 miles or so to Olive Branch to pick up a load of sandbags, he points out for me the exact location of at least a half-dozen traffic fatalities over the last 10 years. He carries on a monologue about a staggering variety of topics — the architecture of the Thebes Courthouse, the design of seatbelts, the birth of the helicopter industry, the rate of recidivism, the New Jersey marshlands, the suicide of a local doctor — that will last all morning. I never even tell him my name.

At first I can hardly understand Tom Earl, what with the noise in his pickup (153,000 miles, 5,000 in the last week alone) and his gnarled Southern Illinois accent that makes Grand Tower come out as “Gran Tar.” But I nod and smile and say, “Is that right?” a few times, and this seems to be all the feedback he needs.

Five times we drive to Olive Branch to pick up sandbags. Each time, without hesitation now, I hop out and join the inmates from the Dixon Springs Correctional Center in piling bags into Tom Earl’s truck. I’d feel pretty useless if I just stood there and watched, as if my only role in this operation were to listen to Tom Earl’s stories. These inmates are all young, probably no more than 20 years old. They respond to the guards with a loud, “Yes SIR!,” and they respond to me in the same way — but it is not necessary. This is still part of the fellowship of sweat, and differences in age, culture, education and even freedom — which just a couple of days earlier had loomed so important to me — do not count for anything. Either you’re willing and able to sling a sandbag or you’re not, and we all are.

At lunchtime, we pause to eat at the buffet set up and staffed by the people of Olive Branch. There are dumplings and potato salad and fruit and Kool-aid. I have not had to buy a meal all week.

I am beginning to understand Tom Earl a little better. I look across the table at him, at the sunburned neck with so many contour lines and deep crevices that it looks like a topographical map, and I smile. He is an amazing man. Just had quintuple bypass surgery a couple of years ago, it turns out, and here he is working frantically to save the town.


The sandbag wall in Thebes rises, slowly but steadily, as a handful of volunteers drift in during the course of the day. So much of the town is under water already that it seems like this might be a losing battle. And everyone knows that. “That old river’ll teach you a thing or two,” says the lady with the cigarette, and everyone “unh hunhs” their agreement. They have lived here all their lives, and will go on living here after this flood is over, watching from their front porches as the Mississippi rolls past them. For all the damage it’s done to them, they still respect the river.

By mid-afternoon I am caked with sand and sweat, and have downed more than a gallon of water. Once again a TV crew manages to find me, but I just give them some simple answers, and in a strangely imitative Southern Illinois voice. I take a walk down the street and see one house where a system of planks has been set up to allow the family to get in and out. I see waves lap up against the steps of a church.

Perhaps nothing I have ever built in my life — not Lego toys, not even five-minute friendships made between stops on the Metro — will be as impermanent as this levee I have helped build today. It will come down, whether by water or by man. It will fall. Yet I am proud of it, damn proud, and as I say goodbye and good luck to the people I have met this day in Thebes, I turn to look again. The levee looks solid, but not nearly as solid as Tom Earl and his neighbors.

The sandbags in my mind, I now know, have already come tumbling down.