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School district sues barge company over flooding

Seeks $6.4 million to pay for repairs to school damaged when dam breached

Published: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 8:19 a.m. CST

MARSEILLES — A Marseilles school district has filed a lawsuit against the company whose barges broke loose from tow and crashed into the Marseilles Lock and Dam during record flooding in April.

Marseilles Elementary Dist. 150 announced Monday it is seeking $6.4 million in damages from Ingram Barge Company. The claim filed in a federal court in Chicago argues the Nashville-based company “breached its duty” to safely secure the barges and is at fault for massive flooding endured by the city.

On April 18, seven barges broke loose from a towing vessel on the Illinois River and slammed into the dam.

Marseilles was one of the worst hit after two days of heavy rain caused significant flooding in the area, forcing the city of 5,100 residents to evacuate nearly a fifth of its population.

Marseilles Elementary School sustained significant damage, forcing the 632 enrolled students to finish the school year in Seneca and classrooms at the Marseilles Church of the Nazarene.

“It’s been like a bad dream,” said Superintendent JoEllen Fuller. “I don’t wish this on anybody.”

The $6.4 million sought in the claim against Ingram would help to cover the repairs the district hopes to complete by the start of the school year on Aug. 19, Fuller said.

“We’re concerned with getting back to some degree of normalcy,” said Fuller.

However, Fuller noted, the $6.4 million dollar repair price tag is an estimate and could change.

The original estimate was in the $3 million range, she said.

Some of the repairs the district will have to make are to classrooms, the kitchen and cafeteria, and the hardwood floors in the gymnasium.

But the district may incur unforseen costs, such as replacement of textbooks.

“[The $6.4 million] might sound like a lot,” Fuller said. “But it all adds up pretty fast.”

The district believes the barge company is responsible for the flooding that caused the damage, with Fuller calling the extent of the damage “avoidable.”

“Real people were impacted by the company’s actions,” Fuller said in a statement Monday. “Rebuilding has been a long, slow process, and one that we believe was avoidable in the first place.”

The claim alleges that the “flow of the Illinois River was impeded and altered such that water flowed ashore, causing extensive flood damage to the Marseilles Elementary School, among other properties” after the barges hit the dam.

The deadline for filing a claim against the company has been extended to Aug. 30, the district noted in their statement. Individual homeowners are also eligible to seek damages.

A representative from Ingram said the company did not have a comment for this story, but indicated that a statement may be forthcoming.

Allen Marshall, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District, which operates the dam, could not comment on the school district’s lawsuit, saying the investigation is ongoing.

“It’s going to take months, if not years, before we can answer those questions,” Marshall said.

Marshall said the Corps has put a rock dyke in place to help control the flow of the river, and is working on making “temporary repairs” to the dam.

In the coming weeks, the Corps will degrade the rock dykes and fabricate bulk heads, and will make detailed damage assessments they were previously unable to make because of conditions.

The temporary repairs will cost over $10 million, Marshall said.

The Corps will also work on “permanent repairs” to the dam, which Marshall said will cost more than $50 million.

“It’s a huge chunk of money,” Marshall said.

It will also likely take a long time, Marshall said, adding that a specific timeline for recovery is unclear.

Superintendent Fuller said the same is true of the lawsuit, which she said could take years.

“I might not see it resolved in my tenure [as superintendent],” Fuller said.

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