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Farmers fighting the flood

As the rising Missouri River closes in on the small southwest Iowa town of Hamburg, local farmers are taking matters into their own hands.

On June 5, a breech or "boil" occurred in the levee along the Missouri River a few miles south of Hamburg, in Atchison County, Missouri, near Bob Woltemath's farm. Basically, the water began running through the bottom of the levee, causing a 10- to 15-foot long section to collapse on itself. The collapse did stop the flow of water from the river, but the levee was compromised.

Woltemath called Darin Hendrickson, who spoke with last night. Hendrickson and his wife, Jodi, own Hendrickson Enterprises, a transportation and logistics company located on the western edge of Hamburg. They are also corn and soybean growers.

"Bob called and asked me to bring my excavator, so I ran right down there to do whatever I could do to help," Hendrickson says. By the time he arrived, representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers were on the scene formulating a plan to repair the damaged levee.

The Corps hired a contractor, Weston Solutions, which got to work trying to repair the levee. The next day, however, the same type of breech occurred about 100 yards downstream. The Iowa National Guard sent a Black Hawk helicopter to the scene, which dropped several thousand pounds of sand in large totes to temporarily reinforce the levee at the second breech.

After that, Hendrickson says the Corps told residents they felt the entire 100 yards of levee between the two breeches was compromised enough that it would almost certainly blow out. "They said they'd done all they could, and they left for town," he said. The Corps then began concentrating on adding five feet to a secondary levee closer to Hamburg, which is designed to protect the town from flooding from a drainage ditch that flows into the swollen Missouri River.

In a briefing held yesterday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Col. Bob Ruch, commander of the Omaha District, said about the breech, "All personnel on site were removed as a safety precaution." He encouraged the public to stay away from levees, but said, "At the same time, it's important that the levee sponsors continue to remain active in the defense of their levees."

Darin's father, Denny Hendrickson, also lives in Hamburg and is a member of the Levee Board. When the Corps removed workers from the levee, the Board hired another contractor, Whitehead. Farmers and other locals, including Darin, then began working with the contractor, placing 40 truckloads of broken concrete and dirt on the river side of the levee yesterday. They plan on hauling another 40 truckloads today.

"Our advice is to stay away from that section of the levee right now," Ruch says. "I do understand the levee sponsor is on site working those breech sites, but that's against our advice in terms of safety."

"We felt the Corps wasn't aggressive enough," Hendrickson says. "Three or four farmers put our heads together, and we're doing what the Corps couldn't -- or wouldn't." The levee is holding, at least for now. "Right now we're winning," he says.

The latest predictions show Missouri River levels in Nebraska City, Nebraska, just north of Hamburg, peaking at 25.5 feet in the next few days. The levee at Hamburg is 27.7 feet high, and as of yesterday, the water was 4 to 5 feet below the top of the levee. With rain in the forecast upriver, though, river levels could go up even more. "It's possible if the river rises another two or three feet, we could still lose it, but we have to try," Hendrickson says. "We believe in our hearts we can hold it, but time will tell."

More questions than answers

Like many people who live and farm along the Missouri River, Darin Hendrickson has some serious questions for the Army Corps of Engineers. "Why did they run the river at 10 feet all winter, when they could have run it at 16 or 17 feet? They should have been paying attention to what was going on upstream," he says.

Some locals feel last year's high river levels may have stressed the levees. Col. Ruch says the levee at Hamburg wasn't necessarily weakened by last year's high river. "I would've expected this one to perform better. It had more water on it last year than when it failed this year," he says. "There is a risk behind all levees and there always will be."

Jody Farhat, Chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division for the Army Corps of Engineers, said in yesterday's briefing, "We evacuated all of last year's flood water prior to the start of the runoff season this year, so we had 100 percent of our flood control storage available. This event is the result of not only the Plains and the mountain snow pack, which we knew were coming, but an extraordinary rainfall event in eastern Montana and northern Wyoming during the month of May, which resulted in record inflows in to our reservoir system."

Farhat said the May run-off in the Missouri River basin exceeded the previous record by nearly 50 percent. "That's the reason we're having to go with these very high releases this year, so we can manage the snow melt run-off. We have not made any operational decisions this year for anything other than for flood control."

But some Hamburg residents don't buy the Corps' response, and still believe water in the reservoirs was kept at a higher level than necessary for wildlife programs and recreation upstream. "Those dams are there to provide flood control, energy, and navigation," Hendrickson says. "Somehow, environmentalism and recreation have been moved to the top of the list."

Photo courtesy of Ricky Hendrickson.

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