Four generations of one family run Riverdock Restaurant in Hardin, a small town on a spit of wooded land between the swollen Illinois and Mississippi rivers. The matriarch is Sara Heffington, in red t-shirt and jeans. She says the Illinois river usually passes 400 feet (120 metres) from the long, ground-floor room where they serve biscuits and sausage gravy. Today water laps at the front door. She recalls a previous deluge, as they prepared to open in 1993. Back then, a levee broke and neck-high, muddy water submerged them. “That was a one-in-500-year flood,” she says.
In years when lots of snow melts upstream or increasingly stormy spring rain overfills midwestern rivers, the Heffingtons get gravel from a nearby quarry, fill bags and build a defensive wall. At the moment an oozing white barrier again surrounds their restaurant as diesel-pumps spit defiant jets back towards the river.
They just about keep nature at bay, even as a fast-moving torrent almost wets the roadway on Hardin’s green metal bridge. When that closed, 26 years ago, the town was all but cut off for five months. The Illinois is likely to crest again next week, at almost the same high level. “It’s starting to scare us,” admits Mrs Heffington.
Older polling, by Pew, had suggested that coast-dwellers were more alarmed by climate change than those living 300 miles or more inland. But inlanders’ views seem to be shifting, too. A survey published this year by the Energy Policy Institute, part of the University of Chicago, found that 70% of Americans believe climate change is real. Nearly half are also more persuaded by warnings from climate scientists than they were five years earlier.
Many said that witnessing extreme weather events—like the tornadoes, storms and floods battering the Midwest —did most to form their views. Michael Greenstone, who runs the institute, says the Midwest is already affected by “hotter summers, and it is more challenging for agriculture”. The region’s farmers are already at the sharp end of change.