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Archive for Monday, June 20, 2011

Levees in northern Missouri can’t hold back river

June 20, 2011

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— Several levees in northern Missouri were failing Sunday to hold back the surge of water being released from upstream dams, and officials and residents braced themselves for more breaches as the Missouri River dipped but then rose again.

A hole in the side of a Holt County levee continued to grow, deluging the state park and recreational area in Big Lake, a community of less than 200 people located 78 miles north of Kansas City. The water — some from recent rain — started pouring over levees Saturday night and Sunday morning in Holt and Atchison counties, flooding farmland, numerous homes and cabins.

In Nebraska, a flooding alert was issued for a second nuclear power plant, but officials said it was the least serious emergency notification issued and the public and workers are not threatened.

The plant was operating Sunday at full capacity, and there was no threat to plant employees or to the public, said Mark Becker, a spokesman for the Nebraska Public Power District.

The notification was issued about 4 a.m. Sunday, when the river reached 42.5 feet, or 899 feet above sea level, at the Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville. Cooper is at 903 feet elevation, and NPPD officials said the river would have to climb to 902 feet at Brownville before officials would shut down the plant.

Becker said the river is expected to crest there at a little over 900 feet. At such a level, officials would need to barricade internal doorways at the plant to protect equipment.

Jud Kneuvean, chief of emergency management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Kansas City District, said the Missouri River dipped by almost 1 foot after the Big Lake breach in Missouri but that the water started to rise again by Sunday afternoon.

Kneuvean said he thought the flooding in the area wouldn’t start for another day or two but that the water level surged by about 2 feet from Saturday morning to Sunday morning. The corps suspects the culprit is an influx of rainwater that combined with a surge from a notch cut in the breached Hamburg, Iowa, levee to allow trapped water to flow back into the river.

“I looked at it mid-evening and told one of my co-workers, ‘We are going to have levees start popping.”’ Kneuvean said of Saturday night. “Within about an hour we were getting the calls on them.”

He said Big Lake is seeking permission to cut a relief hole in an already-damaged county levee to allow water trapped behind the levee to flow back into the river. The levee protects about 13,000 acres of farmland as well as the state park.

Presiding Holt County commissioner Mark Sitherwood said U.S. 159 was closed south of Big Lake because of water pouring over the road. Much of Big Lake’s west side was underwater.

Many have evacuated

Most people left their homes well in advance of the flooding. Those who stayed were told Saturday night that water was flowing into the area.

Big Lake residents Juli and Steve Crenshaw, who stayed behind and used kayaks to get around, spent Saturday night scrambling to fix leaks in levees. After helping to shore up one levee they headed to another one.

“But when we got there with sandbags, the levee was gone,” said Juli Crenshaw, whose own basement was starting to take on water. “It was too late. So we left there and went to another levee and started working to save it.”

The Big Lake area, where water has been high for the past couple weeks, has experienced major flooding in three of the last five years. Sitherwood said this year promises to be much worse following weeks of high flows and increasing releases from the main stem dams in Montana and the Dakotas.

In Atchison County, there was a nearly steady flow of water over a half-mile stretch of a levee near U.S. 136 and overtopping at various points to the north of that area, said Mark Manchester, deputy director of emergency management for the county. He said the river level in the county had reached 44.6 feet, the highest on record and about 4 to 5 inches higher than 1993 flooding levels.

The water was flooding several thousand acres of farmland, but so far no homes had been inundated since a breach this past Monday caused about a dozen homes to take on water, Manchester said.

Because of the high waters, U.S. 136 was closing near the Missouri-Nebraska border.

Enormous strain

Kneuvean, the corps official in Kansas City, said that whenever a levee is being overtopped to the extent occurring in Atchison County, the most that can be hoped is that it will stay intact for 12 hours. After that, “all bets are off,” he said.

A complete breach of the levee could displace up to 200 more people.

Meanwhile, in Nebraska, the flooding alert issued by the Nebraska Public Power District for the Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville, Neb., didn’t stop the plant from operating at full capacity Sunday. The Fort Calhoun Station, another nuclear plant along the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska, issued a similar alert June 6. That plant near Blair, Neb., has been shut down since April and will not be reactivated until the flooding subsides.

Jodi Fawl, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said water was flowing over a levee in the Brownville area and into farmland, but the levee was being built up to alleviate that.

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