Six hundred residents in southwest Iowa were ordered Sunday to evacuate their homes after the Missouri River breached a levee across the border in Missouri.
The evacuation covers nearly half of the town of Hamburg, said Stefanie Bond, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Residents, most of them on the south side of the city of 1,141, were being told to get out within 24 hours.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported a levee was breached Sunday morning south of Hamburg in Missouri’s Atchison County. The corps’ Col. Robert Ruch said crews had been working Saturday on another issue near the breach and all workers were evacuated.
Gen. Derek Hill, head of the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, characterized the breach as a “boil” — a leak that “shoots out like a small geyser” — that was 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
Iowa sent a Blackhawk helicopter Sunday to drop roughly 1,000-pound sandbags on the levee, Hill said, adding it was too dangerous to use ground crews. It was not known how long the work would take.
“It’s a technique that’s been used before by the corps,” he said. “There’s no guarantees but we hope it will (work).”
Rhonda Wiley, emergency management director for Atchison County, Mo., said another nearby levee had a similar break Saturday, but Wiley said crews were able to repair it. She said levees along the Missouri River have been weakened by the river’s recent high water levels.
“We anticipate these compromises rearing their ugly heads all up and down the levee system throughout this event,” Wiley said Sunday. “It’s not a pretty picture. But today nobody appears to be in imminent danger at this moment.”
Towns in peril
In South Dakota, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a backup levee Sunday to protect the town of Dakota Dunes. Corps engineer LeeJay Templeton said the 1.4-mile long secondary levee is slated to be completed by Thursday.
The Missouri River was expected to rise about 8 feet to 1,098 feet above sea level by June 14 in the city of about 2,500 people, some of whom have evacuated ahead of the planned crest. Officials said construction of the primary levee is still under way to protect the city 2 feet beyond the projected high level.
The levee leak affecting Hamburg is about five miles southwest of the city. Hill said that because the land is flat, any water pouring through will back up into Hamburg.
Last week, Bond said Hamburg residents were told not to rely on the levee to protect the city. Fremont County officials requested 130,000 sandbags from the corps.
This year could be one of the wettest on record in the Missouri River basin, according to the corps. Officials are predicting record river flows and large releases from reservoirs in the Dakotas because of steady spring rain and above-normal snowpack. The corps has warned that the overflowing river isn’t likely to crest until mid- to late June and water will remain high for weeks or even months.
As a result of the increased releases, the Missouri River is predicted to rise 5 to 7 feet above flood stage and spill over its banks in numerous spots along Iowa and Nebraska before heading into Missouri.
“This really is an historic event,” said Jody Farhat, who leads the Corps’ Water Management Division in Omaha, Neb.
The only time the river has been higher in the past six decades was in 1952. During that flood, the river crested above 44 feet at Sioux City, and above 40 feet at Omaha. This summer, the river is expected to reach as high as 37 feet at Sioux City and 36 feet at Omaha.
Precise comparisons between this year and 1952 are difficult because five major dams have been built since then and the Missouri River was dredged to make it 8 to 10 feet deeper.