Flooded With Emotions

Inundation. It’s a big word right now in my corner of the world. Thanks to record flood waters working their way down the Missouri River, we are hearing this word a lot. The Army Corps of Engineers has been putting out inundation maps, showing us just how much water to expect. Many families in my community are anticipating 8-10 feet of water to be covering their homes and farms. Some of the ‘lucky’ ones will see their homes spared, but will still be forced to relocate because flood waters will cut off countless access roads. Thousands of people facing this inundation are already flooded with something other than water–emotions. Many are fearful–Will I lose my home? Will my drinking water be safe? What happens if we lose all of our crops? Some are stubborn–It won’t happen to me. It’s never gotten this far before, it won’t get this far now.   We can handle it. Some are angry–Why did the Corps wait to release the water instead of doing it bit by bit all spring? It’s not fair that I am going to lose everything over a man-made flood. And all, at one point or another, are flooded with grief for what this is doing to families and communities throughout the Missouri River valley.

Many have asked, “Why is this happening now? Why is this flooding expected to be worse than the usual flood events that happen in the Midwest?” The primary contributing factor goes back several months, to snow fall hundreds of miles from here. Record rainfall and snow mass in Montana and the Dakotas has led to record water levels at Gavins Point Dam, located on the Missouri River near the border between South Dakota and Nebraska. In order to deal with this deluge, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to increase the outflow from the Dam. As of June 7, the Dam was releasing water at the rate of 130,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Prior to this, the record outflow rate for Gavins Point was 70,000 cfs. To put this number in perspective, water flowing at 130,000 cfs will fill two Olympic swimming pools every second.

However, the flow rate is already higher than that, and getting higher. As of June 12, the flow rate has increased to 140,000 cfs and will move to 150,000 cfs on June 14. Even these numbers do not tell the whole story–the outflow rate given is simply the outflow rate from Gavins Point Dam itself. There are several tributaries connected to the Missouri River along the Iowa/Nebraska border. All of the rain occurring now increases the water level in the tributaries, which flow into the Missouri River. This means that the actual outflow rate will be closer to 193,000 cfs at the Omaha/Council Bluffs point of the river, and 239,000 cfs at the Platte River junction near the Iowa/Missouri border.

Per the Corps of Engineers, this is larger than a ‘100 year flood’ event. In fact, we won’t know just how big an event it will be until it happens. This unpredictability stems from the fact that there are so many unknowns at this point. First, the area connected with these flood waters is immense. Experts are tracking rainfall across Montana, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Nebraska to see how much precipitation is raising the water level of the Missouri River. The truth is, we can never really be sure how much rainfall the area will get, and every increase in precipitation means higher water levels downstream.

To further complicate things, we have to take into account the fact that much of the area affected is rural and minimally developed. Although Omaha and Council Bluffs have flood walls in place designed to withstand a flow rate of 200,000 cfs, most of the area south of the metro has levees built circa 1940. Even the best flood walls were built with the conventional wisdom that typical flood events last no more than a week; unexpected precipitation causes flood waters to rise and quickly recede. However, this time we aren’t dealing with a matter of a brief period of high rainfall–the Corps anticipates that water will be coming out of Gavins Point Dam at an intense rate for the better part of two months. None of the flood walls or levees has been tested to withstand rapidly flowing water for that duration of time; it is literally unprecedented.

What does this mean for residents of the area? The biggest issue is displacement. Thousands of people across the region have already been evacuated–this is a proactive measure to reduce the risk of having lives lost to rapidly rising flood waters. Some homeowners have been understandably hesitant to leave their homes before seeing the waters rise, but it is better to be over-prepared vs. unprepared. Hundreds of residents who remain in their homes have already received notice that an evacuation order may be given to them as well. The sad part of this is that many who have left have packed up everything they own with zero expectations of ever returning; they fully anticipate losing their homes and some have already planned to buy new homes elsewhere. Others who have mobile/modular homes have not merely packed up their belongings; they have hired specialty moving companies to literally pick up their homes and move them, too. Once a family pays thousands of dollars to relocate their home, they are unlikely to move back in the near future. These shrinking Midwest towns would be devastated by a mass exodus, so I hope that many choose to return, although it may mean rebuilding.

Unfortunately, not everything can be moved out of harm’s way. This is where protection mode has kicked in. Countless volunteers up and down the river have formed teams to fill and place sandbags to protect businesses, railroads, water treatment plants, etc. I will personally be working on a sandbag crew this week as we work to protect the railroad tracks and other at-risk areas near my community. Many farmers and business owners have gone past filling sandbags and constructed dirt barriers or berms around their homes or businesses to shield them from rising floodwaters. No one knows how well piles of dirt will fare against fast-moving water, but the thought of doing nothing and just waiting to see what happens is unbearable.

Despite the ominous outlook for our region, I can honestly say that, of the many emotions flooding the people of my town, the emotion I feel most strongly is pride. I am so impressed with the response of the people here. One thing about Midwesterners–we do not give up easily. Look to the people of Joplin recovering from their tornado outbreak and you can see that determination in action. Here in my community, families go back several generations. Many residents were here during the great flood of 1952; one man in his eighties spoke at our town meeting regarding the flood and said that we made it through that flood, and we will make it through this one. When I drive by homes that are being evacuated, I am struck by the sight of half a dozen cars, vans, and trucks with stock trailers behind them lining the driveways. People are not alone in this; friends and families throughout the community are coming together to help each other prepare for the flood.

How are the sandbag crews coming together? In a very low-tech fashion: fliers printed on plain sheets of paper are taped up in the windows of area business indicating the need for workers. In addition, emails have been going out and calls made by volunteers asking other community members to give of their time to man the local flood hotline for a few hours at a time. Nobody is asking what’s in it for them; we understand that our communities are at stake. I love that people are stepping up and helping each other without waiting for some federal funding fairy to descend on our town and save us.

Our country is being hit from all sides with tornadoes, wildfires, and floods. Communities across the nation have faced, or will soon face, scenarios similar to the one mine is facing this week. As they fight to stay afloat in a flood of raging emotions, they would do well to focus on the one sentiment that is helping us get through this experience: camaraderie. The word community literally means ‘a unified body of individuals’; when we come together as a community to face challenges such as these, we emerge stronger and closer than we ever would going it alone.