Levee breaks occurred again Sunday as historic flooding continued in Iowa, Nebraska and nearby states. Conditions won’t be safe until water is off the levees, and that may not happen for days.
On Sunday, the levee overtopped at Hamburg and water flowed into the south end of town, flooding homes, a cafe and other local businesses.
A hastily made earthen berm protected the water plant, as the floodwater continued to slowly rise.
It was the worst flooding in many years, said Lana Brandt, 70.
She said Hamburg is getting help from its neighbors. People from as far away as Omaha have offered to help with sandbags, as have students from nearby towns like Sidney and Tabor.
“We’re an older community, so many of us can’t do sandbags anymore,” she said. “We count on people helping us.”
Brandt, who has lived in Hamburg all her life, noted that the town withstood the 2011 Missouri River flood for months by piling extra dirt on top of the almost 2-mile-long levee on the west side of town. Locals wanted to keep the higher levee, but federal officials said they would have to make about $5.5 million in improvements. That was too costly, so the levee was lowered to its pre-flood height.
“The government made us tear the top off of the levee and bring it down to stump size,” Brandt said. “And so the water’s rushing over the levee now. Whereas, if we had been able to keep that levee, we might have been able to keep our community dry, and we wouldn’t lose businesses and property and crops. This is huge.”
Taylor Parton, 67, who has lived in Hamburg for three years, praised its spirit.
“We all take care of each other,” he said as he looked toward the flooded southern edge of town. “We were all rubbing elbows, bagging sand together, helping each other out.”
The Army Corps of Engineers on Sunday warned that some 210 miles of levees along the Missouri River between Offutt Air Force Base and Leavenworth, Kansas, have been compromised. That stretch touches Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.
“The majority of the levee system along the Missouri River south of Omaha continues to deteriorate,” said Col. John Hudson, commander of the Omaha district of the Corps of Engineers. “The bulk of the levees are overtopped or breached.”
Most of the communities at risk have already flooded, Hudson said. Affected cities include Hamburg and Thurman in Iowa and Nebraska City and Brownville in Nebraska.
There are no plans to force a breach in any of the levees as a way of lowering flood levels, corps officials said.
Rain in the forecast
The National Weather Service said rain is moving into the area Monday night into Tuesday. On Monday, forecasters expect to have a good grasp on rainfall amounts, said Kevin Low, a hydrologist at the weather service. Early indications were that rainfall amounts would range from ¼ to ½ of an inch or more, he said. Light snow is also possible.
The forecast places most of the storm track over the watershed that feeds into the Missouri River at St. Joseph, Missouri, he said. The storm is expected to add about 0.1 of a foot to a half-foot of water from St. Joseph to Jefferson City, Missouri.
Gavins Point releases
The large dam that feeds water into the Missouri River continues to lower its releases after peaking at 100,000 cubic feet a second last week. The dam is a pass-through point for water from the Niobrara River.
Releases could be back to relatively normal later this week, according to Corps of Engineers projections.
Northern Plains and mountain snowmelt is expected to begin flowing into the upper Missouri next week. It is likely to result in minor flooding.
John Remus, who oversees the dams for the corps, said mountain and Plains snowpack is normal to slightly above normal and won’t overburden the reservoirs.
The corps has 97 percent of its flood storage space available behind dams, he said.
“We’re in good shape to capture that snowmelt,” Remus said.
A broken Missouri River gauge at Plattsmouth, Nebraska, has been fixed, and the gauge at Brownville, Nebraska, has been recalibrated. It was reading 0.4 of a foot too high, said Kellie Bergman, chief of the hydrologic engineering branch for the corps.
Ice threat diminishes
Waterways in eastern Nebraska — the Elkhorn, Loup and Platte Rivers — have begun dropping, but the situation remains dicey, said David Pearson, a hydrologist at the weather service. On Sunday, a levee on the Platte River near North Bend was breached, he said.
“There are still some places that have had water on the levees for a long period of time, so it could just blow through,” Pearson said. Additionally, water continues to pour through holes in some levees, so floodwaters will continue to rise in those areas, he said.
River levels need to drop below the minor flood stage before the flood threat fully subsides, Pearson said.
Most of the ice in rivers has broken up and moved along, Pearson said. The main area of concern for ice jams is along the Elkhorn River upstream of Neligh, Nebraska, Pearson said.
“That’s the only place where we are aware there is quite a bit of ice,” he said. “We’re just not sure of the depth.”
The Missouri River is dropping by the hour, and that has helped, Pearson said.
“Every hour, it gets a little better,” he said.