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Midwest Towns, Farmers Brace For Summer Floods

Army National Guardsmen help sandbag along the Missouri River in Dakota Dunes, S.D., on Thursday.
Nati Harnik
Army National Guardsmen help sandbag along the Missouri River in Dakota Dunes, S.D., on Thursday.

Just as the Mississippi River settles after washing out swaths of the South, the flooding elsewhere has just begun: A raging Missouri River in the northern Plains now will threaten parts of the Midwest well into the summer.

Many communities in the upper Midwest had expected a wet season, but the specter of a more severe and sustained period of flooding surfaced following record rainfall concentrated in Montana.

Making matters worse, rising temperatures are expected to melt the snowcaps in the Rocky Mountains following a winter of greater-than-usual snowfall.

The conditions have prompted officials to ready evacuation plans and build up flood-wall protections in downriver states next in line for the potential deluge, from the Dakotas to Iowa to Nebraska to Missouri.

Taken together with the Mississippi River flooding, government officials and analysts say the potential damage to homes, businesses and crops is likely to be the worst since Hurricane Katrina.

"The broader answer is everybody is going to be affected on the river," said Erik Blechinger, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' joint information center for Missouri Basin. "This is absolutely unprecedented flow since the construction of the reservoir system."

To reduce the possible impact on downstream states, the Army Corps of Engineers this week began to release excess water from the dams along the Missouri River. Engineers currently are releasing water at a rate of 85,000 cubic feet per second. By about June 14, they are expected to increase the release rate to 150,000 cubic feet per second — twice the volume that has ever been let through the dams.

Blechinger says "the reservoir system is functioning way it's supposed to" and can handle the increased flow.

But downriver states may not, causing many communities — even the ones with flood-protection levees — to prepare for the worst.

"If we would happen to have large rainfall events upstream, or if we have large thunderstorms below the dams, this could be historic," says southern Missouri farmer Lanny Frakes. River water already is seeping under the Halls levee in Jefferson County and starting to ruin his row crops, he adds. "I'm very apprehensive that this is going to be a major event."

Earlier this spring, America's other mighty river, the Mississippi, wiped out portions of the South. The state of Mississippi, which took the brunt, estimates that about 900 people were displaced from their homes and about 600,000 acres of farmland was damaged.

While the full cost of damage is unclear, many officials and insurance-industry analysts agree that the combined scope of two flooding events hasn't occurred since Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast in 2005.

"The size of the areas affected by these floods is close to the size of the area affected by Katrina," says Elizabeth Malone, an insurance industry analyst at Wunderlich Securities. The difference, she says, is that this year's floods may have lower associated costs because they encompass comparatively more agricultural and other lower-valued properties.

Malone says actual flooding costs in states such as Missouri and Tennessee could exceed losses from other past events, such as Hurricane Ike's destruction in Texas and the Cedar River floods in Iowa, both of which occurred in 2008.

Bracing For The Worst

Downriver states are scrambling to prepare their flood defenses over the next several days before they begin to take rising waters from the scheduled dam releases upstream.

First in the path are North and South Dakota. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard is warning residents to evacuate from the capital city of Pierre, Fort Pierre and Dakota Dunes by Thursday night. Workers are using dirt to build up levees that aren't expected to sufficiently protect the region, where as many as 2,000 homes could flood if waters rise as high as 8 feet, as projected.

On or about June 14, the Army Corps is expected to increase the water flow at the southernmost dam, Gavins Point, in South Dakota, putting the next group of states on the clock to prepare. Upon that dam release, the water is projected to take roughly six days to reach the mouth of the Missouri River at St. Louis. Along the way, it will hit multiple points that include Sioux City, Iowa; Omaha, Neb.; and the Missouri basin.

Barns are surrounded by the flooded Musselshell River west of Harlowton, Mont., on May 26.
Lisa Kunkel / AP
Barns are surrounded by the flooded Musselshell River west of Harlowton, Mont., on May 26.

Early Thursday, the river level at the Missouri basin city of St. Joseph was nearly at 22 feet, or 5 feet above the flood threshold, according to the Army Corps. When the dam releases reach 150,000 cubic feet per second in a couple weeks, the water level could rise an additional 5 to 7 feet — a level not matched here since the devastating flood of 1993.

The area is guarded by the Halls Levee, which protects about 18,500 acres that include rich farmland. Frakes, the farmer, also sits on the governing board of the Halls Levee District. He says crews are inspecting the levee walls to prevent any breaches and preparing to reinforce it with sandbags.

Frakes also sits on the board of the nearby but smaller Rushville-Sugar Levee, less than 50 miles from Kansas City. He says crews are also working to reinforce that barrier. But even if both levees and extra protections hold, water will seep beneath them and soak crops, he says.

Frakes says the majority of his farming area, mostly corn and soybean crops across about 1,150 acres, is behind the Rushville-Sugar Levee.

"We've very fearful that it may be inundated," he says. "And because we expected the corps to maintain the dam releases through the rest of the year, we probably won't be able to plant or do any repairs to the levees until next year. So this is just a stair-step thing down the road."

The Army Corps and National Weather Service warn that the projections are based on average rainfall in the coming weeks. Any storms could worsen matters, Frakes says.

Where It All Began, It Will Continue

Back in Montana, where much of the flooding began a few weeks ago, Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Wednesday asked President Obama to declare the state a major disaster area, a designation that would trigger federal recovery aid. Large portions of the state have been inundated, including the city of Roundup, which took as much as 8 feet.

And it probably isn't over, according to Gina Loss, senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Montana. She says the snow pack will continue to melt through the summer, very likely keeping water levels high. She says the outlook for the rest of June is a 40 to 50 percent chance of cooler temperatures, which would slow the melting. At the same time, there's also the likelihood of greater-than-average rainfall.

"We are just getting started with this event," Loss says. "Actually, I'm kind of hoping it extends beyond June. The longer we can spread this out, the more it will dampen the effects. If we can spread it out over time it may not be quite as significant."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corey Dade is a national correspondent for the NPR Digital News team. With more than 15 years of journalism experience, he writes news analysis about federal policy, national politics, social trends, cultural issues and other topics for NPR.org.