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Hamburg, Iowa, Looks for a Way Forward After Floods

A week after flood waters inundated Hamburg, Iowa, the shock has worn off and residents are getting to work.

“I’ve lived here all my life and have never seen anything like this.” I have heard this repeated over and over for the past week, after the Missouri River made its way farther into the town of Hamburg, Iowa, than ever before, in the second 100-year flood in eight years.

My husband, Jayson, grew up in Hamburg. We visit the family farm east of town often and have many close friends in the area. It is our second home. When news of the coming flood made its way down river last week, we watched helplessly from three hours away as some friends packed what they could transport and left town, while others decided to wait it out. 

We closely monitored social media and checked for texts from friends for updates on Hamburg. We saw photos and video of the townspeople constructing a sandbag-backed, 4-foot-high flood barrier across the entire length of the town from east to west, dividing it in two at the iconic flagpole in the middle of Main Street. Predictions called for a foot of water there. Things were getting real.

The north end of town, it seemed, would be saved. The south end, which contained the town’s water supply, the only restaurant and bar, a hotel, the John Deere dealership, a gluten plant where several of our friends are employed, a transportation company owned by more friends, and many other businesses and homes, could only pray as they headed for higher ground. Many folks moved their belongings to family members’ homes north of “the wall,” as it became known. Businesses instituted their emergency plans. The water was coming.

Heading to Town

By Monday, March 18, Jayson couldn’t stay away any longer, so we loaded up our truck with bottled water and food to donate to shelters that had been set up, and we headed for Hamburg. What is normally a five-minute drive from the farm to town took us over an hour. The bridge over the Nishnabotna River, which flows past Hamburg on the east and drains into the Missouri about 9 miles downstream, was closed. Water was touching the sides of the road. This amazed me, because we regularly tube down the Nish with our kids and friends in the summer, and I’ve floated underneath that bridge with 20 feet or so between me and the bottom of the bridge.

We drove north and west through the country until we finally found a way back south into town. We saw tons of farm equipment and semis that had been moved to higher ground. By the time we got into Hamburg, the wall had given way on the east side. It is at a lower elevation than the west side, which stretches into the bluffs of the Loess Hills. Water began spilling over the wall in the center of town. The flood had not only reached the flagpole, it had climbed up it at least 4 feet.

We talked to one friend who was helping his parents evacuate their home five blocks north of the flagpole. They had three vehicles in the driveway and were all set to leave at the same time. When the first backed out, water was beginning to trickle onto the street. Immediately thereafter, the second pulled out through several inches of water. The third vehicle had water up to the top of its wheel wells. It happened that fast.

Two thirds of the town was in the water. All you could see of the hotel was the roof. The beloved Blue Moon Bar & Grill was mostly underwater. My husband’s church had a basement full of water and then some. We saw vehicles that had to be abandoned submerged to their roofs. Boats made their way down the streets. It was surreal.

One of our friends was surveying damage at his business in one of those boats. He heard a strange noise and turned back. The noise turned out to be rivets popping out of a grain bin. The beans inside had gotten wet and were expanding. The whole bin collapsed into the water. Thankfully there were no injuries.

On that Monday, everyone we talked to was completely drained. They were exhausted from filling sandbags and evacuating. They couldn’t believe the water had reached the flagpole, let alone topped the wall next to it. They were shocked that the water had reached the park and beyond. There was fear on peoples’ faces. How much higher would the water get? Would it reach the elementary school? Would the hospital have to be evacuated? Would the entire town be swept away?

We felt guilty and sad returning to our normal lives the rest of the week, while friends and neighbors continued to fight for Hamburg. The water and gas had to be shut off for the entire town, so even those beyond the reach of the floodwater, many of whom had taken in evacuees, were struggling. We constantly checked for updates. Little by little, the water began to recede.

Fighting the Good Fight

Throughout the week, we were proud of southwest Iowa’s response to this crisis. Facebook groups were set up to keep everyone informed. The last big flood in 2011 showed the town the power of Facebook, and this time they took advantage of it right away. 

Several people went through town rescuing pets that had either been left behind or who had tried unsuccessfully to get back to their flooded homes. Local grocery store chains brought truckloads of bottled water. Nearby towns offered shelter. 

By the time we got back to Hamburg on Saturday, we could cross the Nishnabotna bridge to get into town. The flagpole was once again sitting on dry land, but water still stood throughout much of the south part of town. Portable toilets were set up every few blocks. Debris was piled everywhere, including a mountain of mangled metal from the wall that had been destroyed by the power of the floodwater. It looked a bit like a war zone.

We had come to work, so we reported to Marnie Simons Elementary School, which thankfully is on the north side of town, and has become the nerve center of operations for the recovery in Hamburg. A friend who is also a teacher at the school gave me a tour, and I was blown away by what I saw. By this time, donations had begun rolling into town, and the organizational effort was just incredible. 

As supplies were brought in, they were taken into a clearinghouse room, where volunteers sorted them into categories and took them to the appropriate places. The hallway outside the gym had been turned into a grocery store for displaced or affected residents to come get whatever they need – from breakfast cereal to toothpaste. In the gym, tables and bleachers were stacked high with donations of clothes, shoes, diapers, formula, and other supplies. Volunteers in the gym had sorted everything by size and organized it like a store.

As we walked through the halls, we stopped in the home ec room, where a city council meeting was taking place. City offices had set up residence in other rooms. Oh, and school was back in session, despite the fact many students were displaced. The administration and staff worked tirelessly to contact students’ families and try to get them to class so they could have a bit of normalcy restored. Thank God for this school. 

It was time for us to get to work. Jayson was dispatched to a local church to help move a heavy organ out of the flood waters in hopes it could be saved. I helped serve lunch in the cafeteria, where volunteers prepare three meals a day for anyone who needs them. 

We served hot ham and cheese sandwiches, chili, vegetable beef stew, and all kinds of desserts to around 100 people. Every single one of them thanked us. During lunch, someone made an announcement that four RVs had been donated and set up at a nearby state park as temporary housing for local families. 

People from every walk of life came through the line. Rich or poor, old or young – it didn’t matter. Nobody had water or gas to cook at home, and many people still couldn’t get into their homes or were just taking a break from hauling wet furniture out of their houses. 

The faces had changed in five days. The shock had worn off. They were sleep-deprived, overworked, and worn down, but they weren’t afraid. They were determined. 

What’s Next?

Nobody knows what is going to happen to Hamburg. At first, people wondered if the town would even survive. It’s clear now that it will. Of course, not everyone will rebuild, especially those on the south end of town, where many homes and businesses are still filled with water. If the affected employers are able to stay, that will make a big difference. 

Many people who live in Hamburg work in other towns like Nebraska City, Nebraska. Due to interstate and bridge closings, their usual 20-minute commute now takes an hour and 45 minutes.  Moving closer to work, at least temporarily, is a necessity for some.

Of course, Hamburg residents know they’re not out of the water yet – literally and figuratively. There is still a whole lot of snow and water to the northwest that will eventually make its way down the Missouri River, and so many levees have been damaged in the area. It’s hard to know exactly what to do. So many people are heartbroken over the loss of their homes, possessions, and livelihoods. Some don’t see a clear way forward. It’s going to take time.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the uncertainty, the people of Hamburg and neighboring communities continue to support each other. There have been no reports of looting. People are just giving their neighbors what they need. One resident took gas cans to another town, filled them, set them in his front yard, and posted in the Facebook group that anyone who needed gas could just come take it. Others are offering up cribs and beds and are simply asking how they can help.

Children at Marnie Simons Elementary have made cards to leave on the cafeteria tables with encouraging words for those sharing their dining hall. Outside, their colorful sidewalk chalk art provides a welcome contrast to the drab piles of debris around town. 

Junior high track practice is starting up again this week for the Hamburg Wildcats. The third-graders will continue to build the goat sheds they’ve been working on for the school farm. Babies are being born. Inter-faith church services are being held. Life is moving forward. 

Everyone was surprised by how high the water got, but nobody is surprised by how this town is responding. That’s just how it’s done in Hamburg.

See my coverage of the 2011 Hamburg flood, below.

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