Missouri River turns Midwest areas into Waterworld

A flooded motor home is stuck along the Missouri River in Holt County, Mo. Photo: Barney McCoy

Heavy rains this week have compounded historic flooding on the Missouri River in parts of South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas, rendering many towns, villages and rural areas a Midwestern version of Waterworld. 

As I write this update tonight, the National Weather Service reports the Missouri River is running at record flood stage in Rulo, Neb. The Missouri River there is more than a foot higher than when the massive 1952 flood struck and 9.66 feet above flood stage.

Rulo’s not alone. Brownville, Plattsmouth and Nebraska City, Neb., have also broken flood stage records this week along the Missouri River.

A home in Rulo, Neb., is flooded by the Missouri River which may remain at flood stage through the summer. Photo: Barney McCoy

Across the river in Holt County, Mo., more than 150 residents in Big Lake and 300 more in Craig, Mo., have been evacuated from their homes after levees broke Monday and over the weekend. National Guard troops are providing security for evacuated homeowners in the rural area.

Holt County Commissioner Bill Gordon told the Associated Press Craig had already been losing businesses and residents and more doom could follow in the aftermath of the flooding.

“This is probably going to destroy Craig,” Gordon said. “The bank has moved out, the hardware store, the restaurant is closed. The post office has moved its service to Mound City. There was a seed store there, and a couple small mechanic shops. Craig is probably going to be a ghost town when this is done, all thanks to the Corps of Engineers.”

Missouri River flooding near Blair, Neb. Photo: Nebraska Emergency Management Agency

There’s a strong possibility residents may not be able to return home until the flood waters subside in August or September- By then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believes six upstream dams filled to the brink with water from an abnormally wet winter and spring will finally be able cut back the 160,000 cubic feet or more of water a second being released into the Missouri River.  That’s roughly equal to 1.1 million gallons of water a second cascading over dam spillways from Montana and down across the Dakotas.

Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota will begin releasing 160,000 cfs of water into the Missouri River on Thursday. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Tonight, the U.S. Army Corps announced releases from the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota will increase to 160,000 cubic feet per second by Thursday because of continued wet weather throughout the Missouri River Basin.

“Since the end of May, we have been slowly ramping up releases from our reservoirs to buy time for communities and local and state governments to be able to prepare for high water,” said Brig. Gen. John McMahon, commander of the Northwestern Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. “We thought we would be able to hold at 150,000 cfs for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, recent rains have reduced our flexibility, and we must evacuate these flood waters to manage the remaining flood control storage in the reservoir system. As we’ve stated all along, heavy rain storms could result in major revisions.”

The U.S. Highway 159 bridge over the Missouri River in Rulo, Neb. has been closed by severe flooding. The bridge closing means motorists must drive 108 miles north to Omaha or 50 miles south to St. Joseph, Mo. to cross the Missouri River. Photo: Barney McCoy

The flooding is also a costly headache for truckers and motorists. According to Departments of Transportation in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, dozens of roads and some major highways in the region are under flood water and closed for the foreseeable future.  Detours that reroute vehicles more than a hundred miles around flooded roads and highways aren’t uncommon.

BNSF crews work to raise a railroad bed against approaching Missouri River floodwaters near Big Lake, Missouri. Photo: Barney McCoy

Before Missouri Highway 111 into Big Lake was closed by flooding from Missouri River levee breeches, I caught up with Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad crews  raising and fortifying a main rail line against the rising flood waters.

The BNSF line that runs through Holt County, Missouri is a major east-west shipping route for the railroad. Photo: Barney McCoy

BNSF had a massive operation underway, raising the railroad’s track bed and adding tons of stone rip-rap to fortify about 3.4 miles of line near Big Lake by as much as 20 inches. This was an effort to keep the main line between Kansas City and Lincoln, Neb., above floodwaters.

According to the Associated Press, Big Lake sought an injunction against BNSF Railway and the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, claiming the railroad’s raising of its lines in the village is contributing to flooding.

Big Lake, Mo. filed a court injunction to stop BNSF railroad from raising its track near the northwest Missouri village over fears the project would back-up flood waters into Big Lake. Photo: Barney McCoy

Almost all the nearly 150 residents of the village have now evacuated their homes as high waters along the Missouri River have flooded their village with three or more feet of water.

Village residents believed the raised railroad creates a “bathtub effect” by trapping water, Big Lake attorney Creath Thorne told the A.P. Big Lake also claims BNSF did not follow a city ordinance that requires anyone building in the village to conduct a hydraulic study to determine the construction’s effect on flood control, the St. Joseph News-Press reported Friday.

Flooded croplands like these near the Missouri River in Holt County, Mo. are underwater and lost for the season. Photo: Barney McCoy

A few miles southwest of Big Lake, farm fields were already inundated by flood waters. Hundreds of thousands of acres of corn, soybean and wheat crops up and down the Missouri River are underwater and lost for the planting and growing season.

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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