Missouri towns prepare for deluge as floods move downstream

By Humeyra Pamuk
Missouri towns prepare for deluge as floods move downstream

By Humeyra Pamuk

VALLEY, Neb. (Reuters) - A string of small Missouri towns on Wednesday prepared for the next deluge along the snow-melt-swollen Missouri River after flooding wreaked nearly $1.5 billion in damage in Nebraska, killing at least four people and leaving another man missing.

High water unleashed by last week's late-winter storm and swiftly melting snow this week has already inundated a large swath of Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa along the Missouri River, North America's longest river. States of emergency have been declared in all or parts of the three Midwestern farm states.

The Missouri River's next big flood crest was due to hit St. Joseph, Missouri, about 55 miles (89 km) north of Kansas City, Missouri, and Atchison, Kansas, a short distance downstream, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman James Lowe said on a briefing call.

Homeowners and businesses across Leavenworth County, Missouri, where 81,000 people were under a flood warning on Wednesday, were placing sandbags around property as they have watched the river rise over the last few days, Kim Buchanan, the county’s deputy director of emergency management, told Reuters.

"We have moderate flooding at this time," she said, noting that the forecast shows the river cresting seven feet above flood stage on Thursday or Friday. "Anybody with river interest has already instigated their flood plans and have taken their defensive actions.”

The floods have killed four people in Nebraska and Iowa since the weekend, and officials warned the toll of physical damage would rise as receding waters revealed more devastated roadways, bridges and homes.

A fifth man has been missing since the collapse of the Spencer Dam last week on the Niobrara River. He was identified by the Omaha World-Herald newspaper as Kenny Angel.

Authorities said they had rescued nearly 300 people in Nebraska alone.

A levee break prompted the evacuation of the small community of Craig, Missouri. Local real estate agent Jamie Barnes said everyone in Craig had time to get out before it was flooded, and water was now flowing south through farmland toward communities such as Forest City, Forbes and St Joseph.

"There's just water as far as the eye can see, from bluff to bluff. In some places its five miles, in some 15," Barnes said by phone.


LEVEE SYSTEM COMPROMISED

Several other communities in that area of northwest Missouri have also been evacuated, the Army Corps of Engineers said at a briefing.

"Much of the levee system remains compromised, and as of noon Wednesday there are more than 30 total breaches across the system," in the three states experiencing flooding, Lieutenant Colonel James Startzell, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District told the briefing.

"I was driving out to get one more load of corn from the bins when the levee broke, and there was a wall of water coming at me," said Howard Geib, 54, whose farm is near Craig. "I was on the phone with my son-in-law, who was driving out to help, telling him, 'Stop! Stop! Turn around!'"

The flooding killed livestock, destroyed grains in storage and cut off access to farms because of road and rail damage.

Across the Missouri from the evacuated town of Craig, the village of Rulo, Nebraska, drew a small crowd of onlookers to see the deluge, said Kelly Klepper, owner of Wild Bill’s Bar & Grill.

"We're kind of a tourist attraction right now," Klepper said by phone. "People that don't normally come to Rulo have been coming to Rulo to check out the water."


FLOODED AIR BASE

More than 2,400 Nebraska homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged, with 200 miles (322 km) of roads unusable and 11 bridges wiped out, Governor Pete Ricketts said on Wednesday.

Ricketts estimated the floods caused at least $439 million in damage to public infrastructure and other assets, and $85 million to privately owned assets. He put flood damage for the state's agricultural sector at nearly $1 billion.

Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, which houses the U.S. Strategic Command, remained heavily flooded, though base officials said on Twitter the facility was still "mission-capable." The Strategic Command's mission includes defending against and responding to nuclear attacks.

In Valley, Nebraska, outside Omaha, Pete Smock, 42, worked to clear deep mud surrounding his home and construction business.

"Devastation is everywhere. I haven't seen anything like this in my lifetime," Smock said. He had rented heavy equipment to fill deep holes cut by the floods with gravel and repair driveways leading to his office and garage.

The flooding killed livestock, destroyed grains in storage and cut off access to farms because of road and rail damage.


(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia, P.J. Huffstutter and Mark Weinraub in Chicago, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Andrew Hay in Taos, N.M. and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell)