Disaster strikes here

Flooding north of Lawrence forces evacuations, rescues

Early Sunday morning, Bill Ferguson found himself holding onto his dog and clutching a tree trunk in his front yard as he fought to keep from getting carried away by a flash flood.

On the front porch of their home northwest of Oskaloosa, Ferguson’s wife, Bonnie Ferguson, used a cell phone to dial 911.

“I yelled that I couldn’t get back – I just couldn’t,” Bill Ferguson said several hours later as he recalled the harrowing moments before he was rescued by volunteer firefighters who had to use a boat to get him and his standard poodle.

Ferguson was one of several people who were rescued or evacuated by emergency service crews after a storm dumped about a foot of rain on much of Jefferson County and several surrounding counties Saturday night and during the early morning hours Sunday.

Water overflowed the banks of creeks and covered numerous county roads and highways, including U.S. Highway 24 about 2 miles east of Grantville. The highway remained closed late Sunday night even though the water was receding, said Don Haynes, Jefferson County director of emergency services.

Few injuries

Although there were no fatalities, Jefferson County ambulances did take two people to area hospitals, including a woman who was rescued after spending part of the night clinging to a corn stalk east of Grantville, Jefferson County Sheriff Roy Dunnaway said. The woman had been carried some distance away from her flooded car, he said.

“We could hear her screaming but we couldn’t see where she was at,” Dunnaway said.

It was unclear exactly how many people were taken out of flooded areas by rescue workers, but Dunnaway said he was personally involved in picking up five people. He used a new air boat with a large fan on its tail that the sheriff’s department received only about three weeks ago.

“That boat certainly has paid for itself,” Dunnaway said.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks rescued at least nine people in Jefferson County, according to the Kansas Department of Emergency Management.

Wildlife and Parks assisted with the evacuation of families in a few houses near the overflowing Muddy Creek near Grantville, Wildlife and Parks officer Ryan Smidt said. Most of those people were not in serious danger but understandably wanted out, Smidt said.

Kansas River rising

Although only about an inch of rain fell in Lawrence, the city was still feeling the after-effects of the deluge that struck elsewhere. Sunday night the National Weather Service issued a flood warning for the Kansas River at Lawrence. At 7 p.m., the river level was 17 feet, only a foot below flood stage. It was expected to rise above flood stage early this morning and crest at 18.5 feet. It should fall back below flood level by early afternoon.

By 10 p.m. Sunday the Kansas River was already beginning to overflow its banks in Lawrence. Minor flooding was occurring at Burcham Park and the Riverfront Park boat ramp north of town.

Elsewhere, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius declared an emergency in Jefferson, Jackson, Leavenworth and Shawnee counties.

In Shawnee County, serious flooding problems caused 100 workers to be evacuated from Payless Shoe Source Distribution Center on U.S. 24 in northeast Topeka. In Rossville and Grantville, shelters were opened in the high schools.

The community center in the northern Leavenworth County town of Easton also served as a shelter. More than 50 nursing home residents were evacuated from a facility there before sunrise.

In Oskaloosa, the United Methodist Church was opened to evacuees and people who had to be rescued. The shelter had closed by late afternoon.

‘Freaks of nature’

Early Sunday afternoon, a Union Pacific train became stranded and surrounded by water east of Grantville after railway bridges in front and back of the train became washed out. The engineer and a conductor were rescued by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s air boat.

The train’s engineer, Claude Hughes, said he never felt like he was in danger. Still, it was the first time in his 35-year career with the railroads that he found himself in such a situation.

“It was just one of those freaks of nature,” Hughes said later.

Much of the flooding near Oskaloosa occurred north of town, where Chuck and Jackie Bigham, along with a few friends, were trying to clean up and dry out their house Sunday afternoon. Water from nearby Slough Creek streamed through a cornfield and into their house, awakening them earlier in the morning.

“We got our dogs and cats up to the second level,” Chuck Bigham said, as he looked over the house after much of the furniture had been moved outside to dry out. The water, which reached up to three feet high inside the first level of the house, had receded. At one point, furniture and appliances – including a big refrigerator – were afloat, he said.

The Bighams were upset because they had already contacted their insurance company and been told they were not covered for flood damage. The flood also complicates their plans to move to Franklin County.

“We had the house up for sale, but who is going to buy it now?” Chuck Bigham said.

Praise for rescuers

Despite the lake of water in their front yard, the Fergusons’ house in Oskaloosa was not flooded, they said. Firefighters used their boat to take the Fergusons, their six dogs and their grandchildren to safety. The dogs were eventually taken to a veterinarian. The Fergusons and their grandchildren, Ashley Finstead, 6, and Haley Finstead, 5, of Lawrence, were then taken to the church shelter in Oskaloosa. They had returned to the Fergusons’ house by afternoon. The water had receded.

“I just can’t say enough praise for the firefighters and the people at the shelter,” Bill Ferguson said.

Several Jefferson County roads still had sections that were under water late Sunday, Haynes said. He had asked county school districts not to run bus routes this morning to allow the water to recede and county road crews and engineers the chance to examine the damage to roads and bridges.

“We want to make sure everything is safe,” Haynes said.

That request led the Perry-Lecompton and McLouth school districts to close for the day, school officials said.

Haynes and Dunnaway said they had never seen so much rain at one time.

“We’ve had floods, but I’ve never seen it rain like that,” Dunnaway said. “The water came up so fast and it was so strong.”

The Oskaloosa Chamber of Commerce is starting a relief fund for flood victims, chamber President Shawn Patrick said. Donations can be sent to: the Chamber Relief Fund, State Bank of Oskaloosa, P.O. Box 325, Oskaloosa 66066.