Iowa Town Residents Angry With U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers After Devastating Floods
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Communities across the Great Plains are tallying the damage caused by historic floods. Now let's hear from Hamburg, Iowa. The town is wedged between the Missouri River and one of its tributaries. Only the roofs of some buildings are visible above the water.
And residents say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deserves some of the blame. They're angry at the Corps, both for the way it manages the Missouri River and for how it made the town scale back a levee that protected it from the last major flood.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: At twilight in Hamburg, lifelong residents trickle downtown to a flagpole in the middle of Main Street. Glynn Finnel points out his commercial buildings soaking in the flooded end of town.
GLYNN FINNEL: I've got that one, that one and three more down there that are all under.
MORRIS: Finnel grew up here. He was around when the Missouri River swallowed parts of this community in 1952, 1993 and again in 2011. But Finnel says this flood is his last.
FINNEL: We're going to quit. I've had enough. We're going to empty the buildings, sell them if we can.
MORRIS: More than a thousand people live in Hamburg. It's about half the size it was a century ago. The high school closed years ago. The grocery store folded. Dollar General gave this town a miss. But Linda Hendrickson, who's lived here her whole life, says Hamburg should have been spared the flood.
LINDA HENDRICKSON: This never should have happened.
MORRIS: Because Hamburg used to be better protected. Just before the 2011 flood, the Corps beefed up the old levee, adding an additional eight feet on the top. But then afterwards, federal officials told Hamburg it needed to either bring that levee up to code or scale it back down. The permanent upgrade would cost nearly $5 million. And the town got creative trying to raise the money.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, CHEERING)
MORRIS: Hamburg residents young and old gamely staged a big dance number on Main Street in this fundraising video. But they didn't get the money they needed. And the Corps made Hamburg lower the height of the levee.
HENDRICKSON: But that levee held the water out for 120 days - 120 days it held it out. And if that levee would have been in place, Hamburg would probably be dry tonight.
MORRIS: That's debatable because lots of better-built levees failed this time. But Hamburg isn't the only town where residents are furious with the Corps.
MIKE CRECELIUS: Hello? Well, let's see now. Who actually called this meeting?
MORRIS: Ten miles away in Sydney, Iowa, Fremont County Emergency Management director Mike Crecelius huddles with emergency responders.
CRECELIUS: The state has asked me for some expedited information so that they can do a disaster request.
MORRIS: Lots of destruction here - houses, factories, farms, county roads, railroad tracks, miles of interstate highway. And the levees, built to protect all that stuff, are in tatters.
CRECELIUS: It's going to be a terrible spring for us. And I'm not just saying my county. Everybody north of me to Sioux City and everybody down river from me, it's going to hurt every damn one of us.
MORRIS: A lot of the infrastructure here was just rebuilt after the 2011 flood. Major floods seem to be coming faster and harder. And Crecelius blames the Army Corps of Engineers for its focus on wildlife habitat.
CRECELIUS: And I really don't care about a couple of birds and a fish. I care about people.
MORRIS: But the Corps says flood control is a top priority. It's just that in this case, there wasn't much it could do. Colonel John Hudson runs the Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District and says most of last week's deluge from the historic bomb cyclone storm gushed into the Missouri River below the Corp's main flood control reservoirs, through a blown-out dam and rivers the Corps can't regulate.
JOHN HUDSON: Nearly all of the streams and tributaries where near, at, or exceeded their record flows.
MORRIS: As for that levee in Hamburg, Hudson says the hastily-built extension just didn't meet engineering standards. And the government doesn't want shoddy levees giving people a false sense of security.
HUDSON: You can't have a weak levee that people are going to rely on or anticipate will work that's fundamentally flawed.
MORRIS: The second catastrophic flood this decade has some wondering if the whole concept of building towns, power plants, airports, railroads and major highways in a giant flood plain isn't fundamentally flawed. Back in Hamburg, Terri Moore says everyone here understands that, for better or worse, the community relies on the work of the Army Corps of Engineers.
TERRI MOORE: Are they at fault? I don't know. But somebody's got to fix the problem, either that or none of these towns are going to be here anymore.
MORRIS: Because every major flood on the Missouri River brings a fresh reckoning for the struggling communities that line it. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Hamburg, Iowa.
(SOUNDBITE OF STS9'S "TOKYO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.