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Saturated And Still Dealing With Floods, Northwest Missouri Fears More This Spring

Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Tom Bullock, the emergency services diretor in Holt County, Missouri, stands on a broken bridge on U.S. 159 over Little Tarkio Creek. Although a state contract had been issued for repair, work had not yet started.

In the months since last spring's catastrophic floods along the Missouri River, lifelong Holt County, Missouri, resident Tom Bullock has witnessed a lot of things he'd never seen.

Like, for instance, sheets of black asphalt in corn fields.

“You wouldn’t think asphalt could float, but it does,” said Bullock, who serves as a county commissioner as well as director of the county’s emergency services. "When it gets enough current underneath it, it just picks it up in big sheets and floats it off the side of the road."

Since March, when a “bomb cyclone” hit the upper plains and a 92-year-old dam broke in north-central Nebraska, people living in the Missouri River flood plain have struggled to clean up because so much of the area is still underwater.

Credit Peggy Lowe / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A ruined tractor sits at the corner of a flooded farm field in Holt County, Missouri, where 15,000 acres of a total 95,000 are still underwater. Flooding topped this tractor, and the brown area was created by mud and silt left behind.

In the corner where Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa meet, roads are underwater, bridges are out and left in rubble, and ditches and farmland are covered in feet of mud and silt. In Holt County alone, 15,000 acres out of 95,000 total farm land acres are still underwater, Bullock said.

And there are fears of more flooding next spring.

Kevin Low, a National Weather Service hydrologist with the Missouri Basin River Forecast Center, said the outlook is “grim.”

Saturated ground, which will presumably freeze this winter, combined with high-running rivers, could exacerbate the problem, he said. Rivers were at flood stage until mid-December and that also increases the chance of ice jams, he said.

Credit Twitter
A tweet from the National Weather Service in Kansas City and the Missouri Basin River Forecast Center shows how long rivers were flooded in the Missouri River flood plain.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen a worse set-up for flooding potential,” Low said.

The wildcard, he said, is whether the river basin will receive above-normal snowfall this winter and rainfall this coming spring.

“No one can say, except the good Lord himself, what’s going to happen,” he said. “But I would say if we even have a normal precipitation spring we are going to be in trouble.”

Though Bullock and others say they don't believe the floods were caused by climate change, many scientific studies, as well as a report by 13 federal agencies released late last year, show a correlation between global warming and extreme weather events.

Among the many problems created by climate change is how it affects things most people never think about: roads, bridges, the water supply. A recent Yale study says infrastructure will be the second costliest category of global warming, after health, at a cost of $4 billion in the U.S. every year.

Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said the historic flooding in the Midwest was made worse by years of ignoring infrastructure repairs. When the systems fail, Redlener said people are shocked, but then the problem is often forgotten as it moves into recovery.

“I call these — quote, unquote — wake-up calls but they’re more like snooze alarms,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who are aroused and alarmed and concerned. But it doesn’t take long for us to slip back into complacency and complacency is dangerous.”

Redlener said Missouri residents have two choices in terms of expenditures. One is preventative, like buying insurance or fixing the levees. The other is reparative expenditures, which are “always far more expensive, yet we can’t seem to bring ourselves to doing the preventative work in advance.”

Just in Missouri, flooding damage to roads will cost the state an estimated $32 million, a figure expected to increase since crews don’t have access to the roads, said Bob Brendel, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

In Holt County, levees have not been repaired because high water – even miles from the river – prevents crews from getting near them, Bullock said. Some levees have holes in them at least eight miles wide and they won’t be repaired until next summer, he said.

Credit Peggy Lowe / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Cleanup is still underway along this ruined road in Holt County, Missouri, near Big Lake. The overturned pontoon boat brought down a power pole and electricity was out in this area for months.

Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, told the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in July that more than 100 levees were breached along the Missouri River last spring. Flooding will continue to be a problem, he said, so flood control needs to be a national priority with an increase in funding to the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

“Just like the highway system, the power grid, Internet and communications infrastructure, flood control infrastructure has been left behind,” Waters said.

Specifically, Waters wants a priority change away from the Corps' focus on the Endangered Species Act protections, which keeps too much water in the upstream dams, he said.

Bullock agrees with changing the priority from what many people call "two birds and a fish," a reference to the three species protected by the federal law. Bullock also blames the Corps' priorities.

Because so much farmland was underwater, Bullock said, the county has lost at least $40,000 in sales taxes on grain, which is hard on the budget of a county with just 4,000 people. He’s hoping for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but FEMA can’t get into to all areas for a correct damage assessment.

"Especially little counties like us, we don’t have the funds to put things back like they need to be,” Bullock said. “If we don’t get FEMA money, to help us put it back, we’re in bad trouble.”

Peggy Lowe is a reporter at KCUR and is on Twitter at @peggyllowe.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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