Toxic soup' chokes flooded town


 
 

Tim Potter | | Thursday, July 5, 2007


COFFEYVILLE -- As firefighters in protective suits went door to door in parts of town where floodwaters had receded to check air quality and look for residents or pets, one firefighter quickly backed out of a little blue house on Seventh Street.

"Whew, baby!" he exclaimed.

The house had been closed up, and the soaked carpet gave off a terrible stench.

An air monitor measured a high level of carbon monoxide, "so we're not going in there," said Jennifer Love, a Winfield firefighter and paramedic.

By the door, another firefighter spray-painted a large green slash with a circle in the middle to signal that the house was not safe to enter.

Tuesday's inspection offered the first close-up view of damage and contamination from the floodwaters and from an oil spill from the Coffeyville Resources refinery, which was swamped by rising water over the weekend.

Federal and state officials said Tuesday that it was too early to judge the impact of 42,000 gallons of oil on the landscape. A tour of flooded areas planned for Thursday -- with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and Sens. Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts -- should give a better assessment of the damage.

But Beckie Himes, an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman in Kansas City, Kan., said of the oil spill:

"Honestly, it's pretty large. It's pretty ugly."

Potable water scarce

Meanwhile, the drinking water situation worsened. Because the flooding knocked out some equipment at a Coffeyville water plant intake facility, the city had already been asking residents to conserve water, and use it only for drinking or cooking. Then about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, emergency dispatchers announced that all water needed to be boiled before it could be consumed. With usable water scarce, some businesses closed or limited their service.

Other areas affected by the Department of Health and Environment's advisory to boil water include Independence, Elk City, Fredonia, Neodesha, Longton and rural water districts in Montgomery and Wilson counties. National Guard troops and disaster relief workers have been bringing bottled water into those areas.

Shortly before noon Tuesday, Montgomery County Sheriff Stan Veach said that officers had been directed to go door to door to make sure that any remaining residents in the flooded areas were OK. At least 2,500 people have evacuated Coffeyville neighborhoods. Officers also would help assess damage so that federal, state and local officials could direct assistance, Veach said.

He asked that residents needing assistance or wanting to report damage or report that they were OK call the sheriff's office at 620-330-1000 or 620-251-3500.

Oil and other toxics

On some Coffeyville houses, the oil left slimy lines on the siding as the water crested, then receded.

Standing on Eighth Street, as firefighters took a break from the sultry weather, Winfield Fire Chief Curtis Wilson said, "Wowwee, this is bad."

The oil, along with other chemicals spread by the flooding, had created "kind of a toxic soup," Wilson said. The Winfield, Wellington and Arkansas City fire departments, which have expertise in handling hazardous materials, had come to Coffeyville to assist the town. They went door to door with members of the Tulsa Fire Department.

Ark City firefighters went out in boats looking for stranded pets. Many of the visiting firefighters expected to be there through the Fourth of July holiday.

As a precaution against the oil and other hazards, the firefighters wore hard hats, protective suits, rubber gloves and masks over their mouths and noses. Each team that went house to house had an armed officer escorting it.

Teams started at Second and Pine, just south of the refinery, and walked up and down several streets, checking at each home.

They walked over oil-stained streets and past oil-choked flowers and shrubs whose leaves had shriveled. They passed flooded backyards where oil swirled on the grass.

They saw thousands of dead earthworms. The floodwater had sent worms inside homes, where they ended up on soggy carpets.

Many of the homes appeared to have had at least a foot of water in them before it receded.

At one two-story apartment house, a crew found a man holding a diapered child. An officer told the man he would have to take the child to a safer place.

Federal disaster area

At some homes, firefighters used sledgehammers to open locked front doors to check inside. As they stepped inside, one would announce "Fire Department!"

Officers are blocking off streets, saying it's not safe for residents to go into flooded areas.

Near Fourth and Ash, debris clung to a screened porch.

From the line of flotsam, it was clear that the water had reached up to about 6 feet.

Near Sixth and Linden, a crew briefly entered a blue house with a lattice-covered porch. Firefighters had brought a large Labrador retriever out of the house Monday, but had to leave another dog inside because it wouldn't come to them.

Tuesday, the crew had to quickly back out of the house because their monitor measured an unsafe air level inside. They decided it wasn't worth risking a life to check on the dog.

The number of counties listed by the state as disaster areas because of the flooding was expanded to 20 on Tuesday.

Monday night, President Bush gave disaster status to 17 counties -- Greenwood County had been accidentally omitted from Gov. Sebelius' request. The designation is important because it allows federal aid to help cover the costs.

Tuesday, the adjutant general's office amended its disaster declaration request to the governor and president to include Greenwood as well as Crawford and Labette counties.




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