From Aug. 17, 2008 The Hawk Eye

GULFPORT, Ill. — After taking one look through the doorway of her destroyed home, Diane Krow let out a wail of misery and broke down in tears. She tried to cover her face with her hands, but the white mask provided by FEMA officials already disguised her expression.

Dressed in a white biohazard suit and yellow gloves she received at the FEMA checkpoint, Krow slowly sloshed away from the trailer in ankle deep water that surrounded the home she used to live in.

"It's awful. You just can't imagine," she said in a voice still thick with tears. "I was prepared, sort of. I was hoping for better. I'm allergic to mold, so I couldn't even go in. It (the mold) just took my breath away."

Krow was just one of about 200 former Gulfport residents who trickled back into town throughout the day for the first look at their homes since the Henderson County levee breach June 17. The Henderson County Sheriff's Department provided security for Gulfport throughout the day.

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Krow, who has been living in Mount Pleasant since June, was accompanied by her daughter, Jamie Krow, and her boyfriend, Steve Eaton, who also lost his home just a couple of blocks away. Like many of the residents who were seeing the devastation for the first time, Eaton expressed frustration with the state and the U.S. government.

"The government and everybody reacted so poorly. In 1965, the water was out of here faster," he said.

Most of the roads in Gulfport were passable by vehicle, if the driver didn't mind driving through ankle- and knee-deep water. Debris ranging from branches and soggy clothing to stuffed animals littered the streets, while the occasional shed rooftop could be observed sinking into the muddy ground.

"It's just unbelievable. There is still water in the lamp," Gulfport resident Peggy Burns said while pointing out a ceiling lamp in her trailer barely hanging on by the electric cord.

Burns and her mother, Betty Rose, have been living in Gulfport for most of their lives — Rose is known around town for her fascination with the cartoon character Betty Boop and even has the icon painted on the end of her ruined trailer. Now even her collection of Betty Boop figurines are ruined.

"It's terrible," Rose said. "It's worse than I thought it would be. Everything is gone. Just everything. We won't be able to save anything."

The water surrounding Rose's trailer was too deep for her to get in, and Burns couldn't find anything in her home worth salvaging. Burns took most of her photos and personal items with her the Sunday before the levee break and was amazed to see many of her yard ornaments still intact. But the back wall of her trailer was partially torn away, providing a depressing lakefront view of the floodwater covering the east side of town.

"There's my owl, and my duck and my goose," Burns said as she tromped through her mud pit of a yard taking inventory. "I still have my Christmas lights."

But what meant the most to Burns and her mother was an old wheelbarrow covered in mud, which had not been carried away by the floodwater. The wheelbarrow belonged to Burns' son, who died in a car accident two years ago.

"It's still here," Rose said, trying to hold back tears.

Many residents were eager to return and rebuild as soon as possible.

"This is my home. Burlington is not my home," said Gulfport resident Diane McAllister, who has been living in Burlington since the levee breach. "I love Burlington, but I miss my town. I miss the people I grew up with. My neighbor, I went to school with her kids. She went through the flood of '65, and she wants to come back."

McAllister has lived in Gulfport her entire life and described two reactions she had to the flooding.

"This is the first time I've seen my home since June 14, when I left on my birthday. I got the call on June 17 that Gulfport was gone," she said. "My first reaction, I dropped everything and just screamed and cried. My reaction now — I really cried. There's a lot of memories here. I lived here with my mother, and she's not with us anymore. Thank God for that. Because this would kill her."

Like Eaton, McAllister said she is frustrated with a system comprised of media and governments intent on ignoring Gulfport because of its reputation for bars and strip clubs.

"They don't really talk about Gulfport that much like they do Oakville and everywhere else. And that's making me sad," she said. "It seems like this town is getting ignored because of all the bars. The bars don't mean anything. There is a village up here. There's 200 people that live here. It's ridiculous. Treat us like human beings. We're just as human as everyone else."

Gulfport residents weren't the only ones getting back into their homes Saturday. Those with houses by Stevenson Lake also were allowed by the Henderson County Sheriff's Department to tour the remains of their home.

In the case of Dennis and Cindy Smith, there wasn't much to look at. Their house was completely lifted from its foundation and torn in half at the point where the house connects to the garage, leaving the right corner to sink into the mud. The precarious angle made it impossible to enter the house, much less take anything out.

"We saw some pictures of it from the highway, and we saw some aerial shots, so we knew it was like this," Dennis Smith said.

After living in the house for 12 1/2 years, the Smiths had no plans to move back to Lake Stevenson. The formerly pristine grass that surrounded the lake was covered in either water or mud, giving no indication as to where the ground ends and the lake begins. The road to Stevenson Lake itself was still covered with knee-deep water, though trucks and SUVS had no trouble getting through.

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Bill Kuepper, who was surveying his house that sits right by the lake, also has no plans to return.

"I found a nice home in Burlington. This house, it will have to be torn down. This is a disaster," Kuepper said.

For Kuepper, the house on Stevenson Lake was a reminder of one tragedy after another.

Bill and his late wife, Sandra Kuepper, finished rebuilding their house early this year after a fire destroyed it on Feb. 11, 2007. The fire started in the garage and destroyed everything but a treasure trove of antiques and personal items stored in the rear of the house.

It took the Kueppers about nine months to rebuild their home, but it wasn't long after that tragedy struck again. Bill's wife of 12 years was diagnosed with cancer and died Feb. 11, 2008, the one-year anniversary of their house fire.

Kuepper has a new life in Burlington now, far away from his old living room so full of mud, debris and mold that it's hardly recognizable as a room. And he prefers to keep it that way.

"It's just totaled. Gone. I don't know what else you can say," he said.

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