An Iowa Town Fought and Failed to Save a Levee. Then Came the Flood.

Source: By Mitch Smith, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2019

Flooding in Hamburg, Iowa, turned streets into canals.Hilary Swift for The New York Times

HAMBURG, Iowa — A makeshift levee had once saved the town of Hamburg from floodwaters, and so residents began a desperate fight to keep it. They lobbied politicians. They sought donations. They even danced for the cause, along Main Street. “Levee, levee, save us from the river,” they sang in a YouTube video seven years ago.

But money needed to fix up the levee never came, and, by Wednesday, the town, including much of Main Street, was underwater.

In Hamburg, home to about 1,100 people, the swollen Missouri River invaded houses, swamped the farm equipment dealership and even reached the flagpole in the center of town. It covered diesel tanks and corrupted the drinking water plant. It turned streets into canals.

From left, John Hayes, Bryce Moran, and Josh Hayes surveyed damage by boat.Hilary Swift for The New York Times

“All you can see is roofs,” said Josh Hayes, who works in Hamburg and took a boat through the flooded part of town.

Already, people were talking about what Hamburg might look like once the water receded. Would homes be salvageable? How many businesses and neighbors might leave? Would people donate to help rebuild? And most of all, would federal help come this time to save Hamburg from future floods?

“This will happen again if they don’t move the town,” said Mike Wells, the school superintendent, whose duties, as flooding swept across the Midwest in recent days, have included running an emergency shelter in his building, helping to evacuate a retirement complex and canoeing through floodwaters to save a missing cat. Low-lying parts of town could be relocated onto the hillside, he suggested.

Residents of Hamburg, wedged between the Nishnabotna and Missouri Rivers in Iowa’s fertile southwest corner, speak with pride about enduring nature’s whims, about living in a place where people volunteer to fill sandbags and donate meals and make a silly music video about a levee.

“We all know, living between two rivers, that something like this can happen,” said Heather Garcia, who has not been able to return to her flooded house since Monday when she fled with her son and dog and pretty much nothing else. “But it’s our home. And we just keep going. I’m not really sure how to explain it.”

John Hayes, another resident, was more pessimistic: “I have a gut, bad feeling that this might be the end of this little town.”

Riverfront living in Hamburg has seemed more precarious than ever since 2011. That’s where the beloved levee came in.

The town had long been protected by an approved levee as high as 18 feet designed to block floodwaters. But when still higher waters were threatening the town in 2011, residents and the United States Army Corps of Engineers topped off the levee with a cobbled-together emergency addition: eight or nine more feet of protection.

It was just enough to spare the city through the floods that year, and so residents were eager to keep it forever. But the Corps said the improvised addition was not sufficient as it was. It needed to be removed or rebuilt to particular specifications — at a cost. When the money could not be found, the levee was cut back to its original size and residents were left gazing nervously toward the riverbank.

“We worked a lot with the local sponsors to try to improve them to federal standards, but at the time the funding was just unavailable,” said Lt. Col. James T. Startzell, the deputy commander and chief of staff for the Corps’s Omaha District. Even if the taller levee had remained in place, Colonel Startzell said he believed Hamburg would have still flooded this week.

Some in Hamburg said they understood the reasoning, even if it was difficult to accept this week. Others blamed the smaller levee and other federal water policies for the misery they were experiencing.

“People are furious,” said Ms. Garcia.

The floods in Hamburg came as overflowing rivers wrecked large portions of Nebraska and Iowa over the last week, decimating farmland and wiping out roads. Damage to industry and infrastructure was expected to reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and perhaps much higher. At least three people had died, including one in the same county as Hamburg.

I’m looking at global warming — I don’t need to see the graphs,” said Hamburg’s mayor, Cathy Crain, referring to the role of climate change in increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. After two record-setting floods in a single decade, Ms. Crain said, “I’m living it and everybody else here is living it.”

The flood spoiled a time of cautious optimism in Hamburg, which like many rural Midwestern towns now has about half the population it once did. Next week, Dr. Wells, the school superintendent, was scheduled to ask state officials for permission to reopen the town’s high school, a move seen as crucial to keeping young families in town. Before the water hit, Ms. Crain said, people were talking about building a new subdivision and finding new residents.

But as floodwaters receded in other places, Hamburg remained largely submerged on Wednesday. On the dry side of town, residents visited the school to pick up hot meals and donated clothes that filled the gym. Ms. Crain, who was operating from a makeshift City Hall in the school’s home economics classroom, spoke hopefully about getting businesses back open, even as she coordinated more immediate concerns — like hot showers and restoring gas service.

“We had certainly our horrible moments — we’re not through with that yet,” Ms. Crain said. “Today, we’re up and we are saying there’s going to be a future.” She said she was hopeful — once again — for another project too: a higher levee.