Feb 15, 2024 10:59 PM

52 faces: Ever vigilant

Posted Feb 15, 2024 10:59 PM
Photo by John Lovretta
Photo by John Lovretta

Vicki Stoller has kept a watchful eye on the Mississippi.

By William Smith

There are not many jobs in the country like the one Vicki Stoller has had for decades.

As administrator of the Two Rivers Levee and Drainage District, she watches over 50,000 acres of farmland, nature preserves, and private homes in northern Des Moines County and southern Louisa County.

Stoller ensures that land doesn’t get flooded, using levees and three pumping stations. When the river gets too high, as in the record-setting flood of 2008, she works with local officials to minimize and mitigate the damage.

“It seems like I’ve always been involved with the river,” Stoller said.

Stoller is a Burlington native and grew up along the Mississippi River. She was a city girl until summer and turned into a female Huck Finn when school let out. She never wanted to leave it.

“My family bought a cabin in the Tama area back when I was in first grade, and that’s where we spent our summers,” Stoller said.

Stoller is retiring from her position within the next month — a job that only she has ever held. Southeast Iowa’s unique position and relationship with the Mississippi River make the job one of a kind. Gaining the respect of landowners and farmers was the only way Stoller was able to manage 37 miles of levees.

That respect extends into every corner of the county, through county, city, and state offices. She thanked all of them during the Jan. 30 Des Moines County supervisor meeting.

“I would like to thank all of you, over the last 27 years — and that’s how long it’s been that you’ve had to put up with me. I’ve learned to know most of you through flood fighting, through conservation, camping issues, tax assessments, and law enforcement helping up with flood-fighting,” she said. “I have learned that over 27 years, you are just not business acquaintances. You have become friends.”

Stoller did her best to hold back tears during the meeting. Everyone in the room applauded her. 

“You look in the dictionary under the term ‘irreplaceable,’ it would have your picture. You have the biggest shoes in Southeast Iowa to fill,” Des Moines County Supervisor Tom Broeker said.

Long before she monitored the river, Stoller taught reading at the long-defunct Central Avenue School in Burlington. She was extremely shy as a child but overcame it by working the checkout lanes at Hy-Vee. She attended Southeastern Community College after graduating high school in 1966 and went on to Western Illinois University before teaching.

“I was teaching children from kindergarten to sixth grade in small groups. I was helping with kids that needed an extra boost or a little more structure in their education,” she said.

Stoller got married, had three children, and moved to St. Louis for a time. She later divorced and moved back to Burlington. She embarked on a series of jobs after that and remarried.

“Here I was with three children and no job,” she explained. “I had to do something, and that was when I became a customer representative for the C & E Furniture Co.”

She later worked part-time at Iowa Job Service interviewing job applicants and then stumbled upon a much greater opportunity.

“U.S. Congressman (Jim) Lightfoot had just been elected and was looking for a caseworker to work in his Burlington Iowa office. I didn’t think I had much of a chance, but I applied anyway,” she said.

Stoller dealt with Lightfoot’s constituents and gained experience working with government agencies. Burlington was hit hard by the Flood of 1993 when Stoller was working for Lightfoot, and she grew accustomed to asking for disaster aid.

“I walked the Tama levee with our then attorney, Scott Power. And when you walk to the top of the levee, there are sandbags piled up so high that you’re looking up,” she said.

Behind those sandbags was a wall of water straining to burst through. It was eerie, Stoller said.

“When you’re looking up and you see water, that’s unreal. That really gets to you,” she said.

The flood of 1993 convinced the independent drainage and levee districts to form an umbrella organization.

Stoller made an impression working for the congressman and was offered a new job overseeing the districts.

When Stoller started, the levee district was still separate from the three drainage districts that served the area known as the Kingston Bottoms. Stoller became the administrator of the reorganized organization.

It was a lot to take on.

“I found myself responsible for each district, with their clerks and budgets. I was attending five board meetings a month, and the paperwork was tremendous. But I was lucky because I had a great hands-on board that was very knowledgeable, and going into the Flood of 2008 we were all working together,” she said.

As bad as flooding was in 1993, the Flood of 2008 was the worst flooding disaster to ever hit the area.

Stoller remembers how quickly a northern levee break flooded the north part of the district, all the way down to the Big Ditch. The water was supposed to take three to four days to fill the area if the levee broke. 

It took less than 24 hours, Stoller said. A hole had to be punched in a levee to the southeast to ensure the rushing water didn’t overtop the levee south of the break. Stoller’s husband was on the scene with an excavator, scooping sand as the water rose.

“We found ourselves really needing a temporary levee to cut off the inflow of the Iowa River so we could begin pumping out the flooded area,” she said.

U.S. Senators Harkin and Grassley were in the district to observe the flooding, which was a blessing.

“We were on the phone talking to the commanding officer of the Corps of Engineers Mississippi Valley Division out of Vicksburg. We explained how desperately we needed a temporary levee,” Stoller said.

The officer didn’t seem to understand the urgency until the senators got involved.

Those days of chaos certainly don’t define the job, though mitigation from the Flood of 2008 lasted years. The result was perhaps Stoller’s greatest accomplishment — an even stronger levee and drainage district. 

Stoller won’t be spending her retirement years too far away from the Two Rivers office in Kingston. 

She is a river bottoms girl at heart. She remains fascinated by the Mississippi River and the land that surrounds it.

She will always be Huck Finn.

“I’m going to move into looking at old documents and newspapers and pictures and maps. Documents that date back to the 1800s that are on onion-skin paper. They need to be digitized, categorized, and saved for future generations,” she said.