Missouri River flood repairs begin as questions persist


Charlie Zanker stands in a pile of junk that was once his house. More than 30 years after he moved into the house, last summer’s flooding on the Missouri River forced Zanker out.

Story and Photos by Stephanie Smolek, NewsNetNebraska

Many of the concerns raised during the 2011 Missouri River flood have yet to be resolved;  Questions over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control policies and priorities.  Some critics, politicians, farmers and other property holders, still ask if the Corps could have better managed the extraordinary precipitation that fell last winter and spring.

The Corps said heavy rain and snowfall forced it to release historic volumes of water from Corps dams last spring and summer. The releases triggered months of flooding that destroyed levees in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, forced evacuations and caused millions of dollars in damage to homes, crops and businesses.

Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is taking an collaborative role in repairing the damages. It’s spending $280 million on dozens of projects to fix the flood damage from last year. Many of those Corps flood repair projects are already underway, involving a round the clock schedule to complete. The Corps says it’s also talking with stakeholders about better ways to manage the Missouri River. The Missouri River Flood Task Force, is a first step in the collaborative process.

Click here to listen to the latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers climate outlook and repairs report for the Missouri River basin.

The Corps said preparing for the 2012 runoff season is its top priority. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Brig. Gen. McMahon said, “It is important that we take a holistic approach to operating the reservoir system, an approach that is based on science and engineering, good data and considers the fragility of the system and the ongoing efforts to make critical repairs to get ready for 2012.”

By March 1, the Corps hopes to complete initial flood damage repairs. It says it wants to keep flood risk reduction as a top priority.  Part of the Corps efforts thus far include a review of the Corps’ operation of the six mainstem dams along the upper Missouri River. The review will look at how the dams were operated before and during the Flood of 2011.  Click here to see their findings.

Click the map below to see the latest data base of Missouri River flood repair projects.

View Flood 2011 Repairs in a larger map

That’s what’s happening so far in 2012. Read below to learn more about the stories of some of those affected by last year’s Missouri River flood.

Charlie Zanker

Flooding from the Missouri River has pushed Charlie Zanker out of his home six times in the last 30 years. After last summer’s flood though, Zanker said he will never move back.

The Missouri River gobbled up Zanker’s farm near Hamburg, Iowa. He lost more than 1,900 acres of crops. The river also took his house, his shop and 32 grain bins. “I have parts of my body all over that place,” he said. “It’s difficult to look at the land now.”

Three months of flooding caused by a historically wet winter and spring in the upper Missouri River basin cost Nebraska $189 million in economic activity from agriculture this year, according to the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Iowa farmers suffered $207 million in losses.

Governors disappointed

Zanker has found many items from his home and shop scattered throughout his property.

Zanker’s not the only one talking about the summer’s flooding. Governors of states along the Missouri River are questioning the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers‘ river management for flood control. During the flooding, the Corps released historic levels of water through Missouri River reservoir dams. The water flooded towns, farms and roads from South Dakota to Missouri.

Last February, the Corps said it was prepared to handle the runoff from the heavy winter snowpack, which was four times above normal in some areas. Then in April, the upper Missouri River basin received a year’s worth of rain. The Corps knew flooding would occur.

“Public safety was our number one concern, said Brig. Gen. John McMahon, commander of the Northwestern Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. “Moving water out of the reservoirs was essential to prevent the spillways from being overtopped, which would make flooding much worse.”

Ruch said the Corps manages the river for eight interests, not just flood control. “You cannot run something that’s meant for eight purposes for one,” Ruch said. Conservation, recreation and fish and wildlife are factored into management.

Zanker questioned whether the Corps did not release flood waters earlier in order to provide a better habitat for endangered species living in the river. Ruch said the Endangered Species Act had no effect on management.

Col. Robert Ruch, commander of the Corps’ Omaha District, said the Corps has been 100 percent committed to fighting the flood from the start. He said the flood couldn’t be prevented, but the Corps was working to minimize the damages.

Was flooding inevitable?

Flood waters between 8 and 12 feet deep threatened Hamburg. Zanker said every grain bin for miles was destroyed by the force of the water.

The National Weather Service said the flood would have happened no matter what the Corps did. The dams were built to manage the Missouri River in times of drought and flooding, the Corps said. An usually wet winter and spring brought more water than the dams could handle.

“The stage at Omaha would have been nearly four feet higher had the dams not been in place,” said David Pearson, a senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Omaha. “This flood was certainly extraordinary.”

Even so, Zanker and officials in states bordering the Missouri River are not as confident in the Corps’ actions. Governors of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming have formed a flood-control working group. “Our highest priority is protecting our citizens’ homes, farmers and ranchers and businesses along the Missouri River,” Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said.

Flood Map

View Missouri River flooding in 2011 in a larger map
The map above shows the Missouri River dam locations and peak flood heights along the river last summer if the dams had not existed.

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Clare and Gayle Duda farm near Omaha, Neb. They said their summer was emotionally draining. All they could do was watch as water filled their fields. To learn more about their story click on the video box above.

In a letter, state officials asked Congress to conduct a high-level, independent review of the Corps’ actions this past summer. They questioned if flooding impacts could have been reduced. They said the Corps’ budget might not reflect flood control as a top priority.

“The Missouri River flood of 2011 has resulted in major damages in Nebraska and enormous hardships for many of our citizens,” Heineman said. “I am committed to reducing Nebraska’s exposure to future flood hazards while working with other basin states, our federal partners and basin stakeholders to improve river management.”

This levee was cut on purpose to relieve stress on the system and prevent Hamburg from being flooded Zanker said. “It’s unfortunate it had to be on my land,” he said.

Residents wanted faster action

Gary Denniston lives south of Plattsmouth, Neb., at Lake Wa Con-Da. On Memorial Day weekend the lake’s caretaker knocked on Denniston’s door to tell him homes along the lake may be “totally wiped out.”

The uncertainty of the flood made things difficult, Denniston said. “You may never be able to return.” On Oct. 1, when Denniston did return home, he was overjoyed. “Not a day goes by where we don’t say, ‘Oh God this feels good to be back.’”

Denniston is optimistic he will never see a flood like this again. He also believes the Corps didn’t act soon enough. “I have to believe that back in January and February, when there was record snow, someone didn’t suggest letting water out.”

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(ABOVE) When the Missouri River flooded Plattsmouth, Neb., residents faced uncertainty over the city’s flooded water treatment plant. To learn about Plattsmouth’s flooding click on the video box below.

Zanker and other Hamburg residents have repaired the roads, but some areas need more help.

Standing in front of what will soon be his new home, Zanker said he is moving on.

Some think Corps’ response was slow

Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, said the Corps has been slow to respond to flood damage. Last summer, Waters said he was one of the Corps’ few supporters. Now, Waters said he is disappointed in the Corps’ flood response.

“The Corps can start by focusing on their job at hand, repairing levees, not turning farmland into fish and wildlife laboratories,” he said. “After blowing up our levees and emptying the lakes onto our land, the Corps should be rushing to make things right.”

Plans for future flooding

National Weather Service hydrologist David Pearson said it’s never too soon to prepare for 2012. He is expecting another cool and wet winter but no flooding. “It’s too far away to say for sure,” Pearson said. “But it’s fair to say it’s highly unlikely this will happen again, but it’s not impossible.”

Pearson said this was a 500-year event, meaning there is a .5 percent chance of similar flooding any year.

As the Corps prepares for the future, so does Zanker. Zanker says he is not only moving on but moving up as well. He is building a new home on a hill well above the river. “The Missouri River is a complicated system, but I will always be passionate about its management,” he said.


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