Nebraska, Iowa cities brace for flooding

Monday, June 6, 2011
Residents of Fort Pierre, S.D., add sandbags Sunday to a dike surrounding a home in Fort Pierre to protect it from floodwaters from the Missouri River. The river hasn't been this high since 1952. (AP Photo/Capital Journal, Chris Mangan)

OMAHA, Neb. -- Cities up and down the Missouri River in Nebraska and Iowa are inspecting flood walls and piling up sandbags to prepare for a deluge of water the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release later this month.

But it's difficult for anyone to feel 100 percent confident about their preparations because this year's flooding will likely exceed the 1993 flood and might rival the record 1952 flood. And the flooding is expected to last most of the summer.

Six hundred residents in Hamburg, Iowa -- nearly half of the town -- were told Sunday to get out of their homes within 24 hours after the Corps reported a levee had been breached downstream in Missouri's Atchison County. Stefanie Bond, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said officials were working on a repair plan and the evacuations were ordered in case repairs failed.

The Corps plans to significantly increase the amount of water being released from the Gavins Point Dam on Lewis and Clark Lake in South Dakota over the next two weeks to clear out some water from surprisingly heavy spring rains and make room for runoff from this year's above-normal snowmelt.

As a result of the increased releases, the river is predicted to rise 5 to 7 feet above flood stage and spill over its banks in numerous spots in Iowa and Nebraska before heading into Missouri.

The only time the river has been higher in the past six decades was in 1952. During that flood, the river crested above 44 feet at Sioux City, Iowa, and above 40 feet at Omaha. This summer, the river is expected to reach as high as 37 feet at Sioux City and 36 feet at Omaha.

"We are planning for what we know right now. But you always have to be ready for the unknowns," Sioux City spokesman Joe Rodriguez said.

Precise comparisons between this year and 1952 are difficult because five major dams, including Gavins Point, have been built since then and the Missouri River was dredged to make it 8 to 10 feet deeper.

Officials and volunteers have been preparing for high water for days in Sioux City, South Sioux City, Neb., and Dakota Dunes, S.D. -- three communities separated by the river. Much of Dakota Dunes has already been evacuated.

In nearby South Sioux City, officials have been scrambling to protect the city's vulnerable northwest side. City officials initially planned to build a concrete wall atop an existing levee for protection, but the Corps wanted a less permanent, more proven option. So now a new levee is being built out of sand and dirt.

Construction of South Sioux City's new 7,000-foot-long berm began Friday. That earthen flood wall and a secondary wall of sand-filled plastic foam forms behind it should be completed within a week.

South Sioux City administrator Lance Hedquist said the new flood wall should be about 2 feet taller than the floodwaters. The temporary flood barriers should offer some peace of mind to residents living behind them, but it won't be clear how well the walls will hold up until the water arrives.

"Clearly on paper the ideas work. Now we have to see how it works in reality," Hedquist said.

If the Corps' predictions hold true, most of Sioux City -- Iowa's fourth largest city with roughly 82,000 people -- will avoid the floodwaters. The Missouri is expected to stay within an area between Interstate 29 and the river even though the flow will likely peak 5 to 7 feet above flood stage. The area that's expected to flood in Sioux City is mostly parkland, but an industrial area and part of one neighborhood of about 500 homes is in jeopardy.

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