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As floods advance, crews race to save Iowa town

A temporary earthen levee is the only barrier standing between Hamburg and the floodwaters of the Missouri River, and officials hope efforts to beef it up will be enough to keep the small southwestern Iowa town from filling up like a bathtub.

Crews working for the Army Corps of Engineers hope to pile at least three feet of extra dirt atop the levee before Wednesday evening. The stakes are high: If it fails, parts of the town could be covered by as much as 10 feet of water within days. And high water could linger for months.

The hurriedly constructed levee became Hamburg's last line of defense after the river punched through another levee downstream in northwest Missouri that provided the town's primary protection. That failure left water gushing through a large gap on a path to inundate the town of 1,100 — unless the other levee can be made taller.

"We've got every confidence that we're ahead of it enough to stop the water from coming into Hamburg and flooding the area. ... I'm real confident. They're placing it as well as they can with the equipment and time that we have," said Dave Ray, a geotechnical engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, Neb. Ray's voice was hoarse from shouting over noisy earth-moving equipment at sites all along the Missouri River for the past month.

He said crews worked through the night to build up the earthen levee just outside of Hamburg.

"They're raising it up another 3 feet from the original design. They've got good clean material close to the site, so that cuts down on haul distance and time. He's working 24 hours to raise the thing up," Ray said.

Like A Slowly Filling Bathtub

Even though the levee breach was downstream, the floodwaters were flowing north to fill the area around Hamburg because the town sits in a valley. Fire Chief Dan Sturm compared the geography to a slowly filling bathtub.

The corps doesn't expect the flooding to reach the new levee until sometime Wednesday.

"You can see the water coming," said Col. Bob Ruch, commander of the corps' Omaha district.

The river has been rising steadily for weeks as the corps increases the amount of water released from its dams to clear out heavy spring rain and snowmelt.

Releases at Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota hit the maximum planned amount of 150,000 cubic feet of water per second on Tuesday. So officials downstream in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri were sure to be watching for more levee problems.

The dam releases are expected to raise the Missouri River 5 to 7 feet above flood stage in most of Nebraska and Iowa. In Missouri, the river may climb 10 feet above flood stage in some places and spill over the top of several rural levees.

Parts of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota have already seen some flooding, and a section of Interstate 680 that connects Omaha and Iowa has been closed because water has crept onto the roadway. Officials predict the problems will linger through the summer because of the large volume of water already in the river and the larger-than-usual Rocky Mountain snowpack.

The corps does not expect to reduce the amount of water released from the dams until at least August.

So far, the floodwaters have covered mostly corn and soybean fields with few structures. But it's an unwelcome development for farmers because grain supplies are at historically low levels and demand is strong for every bushel of corn and soybeans.

Still, the loss of the crops is unlikely to affect overall U.S. production because the areas underwater are relatively small.

Mike Nenneman, a farmer from Sidney, is waiting for the flood to swamp a 360-acre tract of corn and soybeans he owns in far southwest Iowa. He expects to break even, with $700 per acre in crop insurance to offset his losses.

"We are the drain of southwest Iowa," Nenneman said, gesturing to the Missouri River to the west and the Nishnabotna River to the east. "We take all the water from everywhere."

In Hamburg, Nathan Beach, 22, was visiting for what he fears will be the last time. He said he has a lot of memories of the town from trips he took in his childhood, traveling from his home in eastern Iowa. This time he drove in from Lincoln, Neb., where he's attending college.

"I'm here to visit Hamburg because I think it might be flooding soon, and I want to see the place where I came as a child," Beach said. "My grandparents used to live here, my grandfather used to have a watch shop here, so I want to visit the town, see where their house used to be, and maybe see it before it all got inundated."

Buying Some Time

The corps started building the new Hamburg levee last week after finding problems in the main levee in Missouri. Workers hoped to complete the project by Wednesday night. When finished, it will be about 8 feet tall in most places.

"I feel good about it," said Sturm, the fire chief. "But we can't guarantee anything. We've never really had to cope with anything of this magnitude."

A line of tractor-trailers carrying dirt to the levee stretched for more than a quarter-mile Tuesday morning. Once the trucks reached the work area, tractors and other earth-moving equipment carried and pushed it to the levee.

To help buy some additional time for the levee work, the corps cut a notch 300 feet wide and 3 feet deep in the same Missouri River levee south of Hamburg that recently failed. The notch will allow some floodwater to drain back into the river, but it will only slow the water's advance toward Hamburg, Ruch said.

The town is mostly quiet now; at least half of the residents have already left. But down the road at the elementary school, volunteers were chipping away at a mountain of sand in the parking lot, filling burlap bags one shovelful at a time.

Resident Tyler Woodward said many of those who remained said their homes are safe, but they wanted to do something to help their neighbors.

"We live up on the hill, so we're fine there," Woodward said. "We evacuated our business down there on the bottom. Most farmers moved out all of their equipment and stuff out of their shops, and now all the homes are evacuated down there behind the levee. And the south end of town is evacuated pretty much, too."

Several businesses near the levee stood empty Tuesday as crews toiled on the new barrier.

Todd Morgan of A&M Green Power Group said the owners of the John Deere dealership moved their business to one of the company's other dealerships in Shenandoah, 25 miles away.

"We wanted to play it safe than sorry," Morgan said.

Morgan said he doesn't know whether the dealership will return.

Fremont County Sheriff Kevin Aistrope said all but seven of the roughly 40 households in the southern part of Hamburg have evacuated voluntarily. The remaining seven have moved all of their furniture and can escape quickly if water floods the town, he said.

About 45 miles south of Hamburg in Missouri, the river also broke through a levee near Big Lake in Holt County. About 30 residents who had stayed in the resort town after the river started rising were told to leave Monday, but some refused to go.

With reporting from Sarah McCammon of member station WOI in Hamburg, Iowa, and material from The Associated Press.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.

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