Flood covers Great River Road

(Originally published in the Telegraph on 6/24/08)

GRAFTON - Flooding from the Mississippi River forced the closure Tuesday of Illinois Route 100, but some Grafton business owners remain optimistic they can avoid economic disaster.

The Illinois Department of Transportation announced Tuesday it had completely closed Route 100, also known as the Great River Road, between U.S. Route 67 in Alton and Illinois Route 16, north of Nutwood in Jersey County, because of floodwaters on the road.

IDOT said motorists would need to use the current detour, which sends them on Route 67 to Illinois Route 3, then to Illinois Route 109 and finally onto Route 16, to circumvent the closure. Local access to the towns of Grafton, Elsah, Chautauqua and Beltrees remains available via Route 3.

Current flood projections indicate the closure will remain in effect through the weekend.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, the Mississippi was measured at 29 feet 8 inches at Grafton, where flood stage is 18 feet. The National Weather Service is predicting a crest of 30.2 feet at 7 a.m. today, said Carol Wallace, administrative manager for the city. The level is not projected to fall below 30 feet until Friday.

The decks of the Loading Dock Bar and Grill are drenched in 4 feet of water, and 6 inches have leaked into the bar area, but flooding will not stop owner Peter Allen from opening for business on a grassy lot to the east of the building. The bar and grill staff will barbecue hot dogs, brats and other hot eats this Saturday and Sunday, Allen said. Dixon Distributing will deliver the beer.

"We understand, especially with the River Road closed, that it's gonna be slim pickings as far as customers go," Allen said. "We're just trying to keep (the business) alive."

The outdoor eatery, which Allen called "The Sand Bar," will be open during the flood every Saturday and Sunday from noon until dusk.

"Grafton is still accessible," Allen said. "You just have to come from the high ground."

The town's businesses that remain open can be reached by taking Route 3 to Grafton, then turning left on Grafton Hills Drive, which leads directly to the east end of Main Street.

The Ruebel Hotel stayed open despite 18 inches of water flooding the basement, owner Mohammad Khamee said. The historic inn changed ownership in May when Khamee, a native of England and former owner of the O'Fallon Days Inn, purchased the Ruebel with plans to remodel.

"Once the water recedes, we're going to get a team to throw away the carpets, power-wash the floor, and bleach and rip out the walls," Khamee said. "It's a very expensive process, but it must be done. You can't fight Mother Nature."

Khamee has given complimentary lodging to conservation officers working in Grafton as a friendly gesture toward the community.

"You've got to keep your chin up," he said. "I'm a great believer that God is testing my strength."

Also open for regular business hours are O'Hair's Salon and Spa and Grafton Inn, both owned by Patty O'Hair. The building, located at 22 E. Main St., which is what Route 100 is designated through the city, is not expected to flood, but O'Hair acquired 800 sandbags, just in case.

Business at the salon has been slow this week, and the inn has lost $1,200 in canceled reservations for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, O'Hair said.

"Every business does suffer, especially with the news media saying everything is shut down," she said. "Grafton is definitely a tourist town, and they're missing a lot of revenue."

Entrepreneurs take calculated risks when opening businesses in Grafton, because floods are "a fact of life when you live on the river," she said.

But O'Hair remains hopeful for the future of Grafton and its businesses.

"I have to feel optimistic," she said. "There's no other way I can look at it."

At the Grafton Amoco station, assistant manager Ada Cramer said business "has dropped off at least 40 percent," requiring the gas station to reduce business hours.

"There just isn't anyone here but the local people" and the conservation officers, Cramer said. "We're here for them."

Some Grafton businesses may not survive the summer because of extensive water damage.

Dos Rios Mexican Grill opened on June 15, 2007, and closed because of flooding on its first anniversary, possibly for good, owner Ernie Cuevas said.

"We struggled all winter, because winter was so long, cold, rainy and snowy," he said. "Everyone says if you make it through the winter, you're going to make it," but inclement weather lasted into the spring and summer.

"It has been a real pain for us. This is our busy season. We planned on turning it around, you know," Cuevas said. "This flood just put the icing on the cake."

Despite the flood's adverse effects on the local economy, Allen admired its beauty.

"Grafton is still alive and well, and in a weird way, it's prettier with the river up," he said.

The city of Grafton does not foresee trouble with the water supply, but a charitable organization donated several pallets holding thousands of bottles of water in case of a boil order, Wallace said. City Hall received the water over the weekend, and it was not immediately clear who donated the provisions.