How An Iowa Town Won Its Fight For Better Flood Protection
Levees protect people, towns and agriculture from flooding. But two years ago, parts of the Missouri River and its tributaries reached record crests, and many levees failed. Now there’s a rare effort to build a levee higher to better defend one southwest Iowa town.
Hamburg sits five miles from the Missouri River, sandwiched between it and the Nishnabotna River. Just outside of town, the Ditch 6 levee stretches for a mile and a half, shielding the town of 1,100 people from runoff from the Loess Hills to the north and east. Built in 1998, it also serves as a secondary line of defense for Hamburg’s industrial buildings and homes if a main levee along the Missouri River is overtopped or breached.
Hamburg has seen its share of flooding in recent decades, including 1952, 1993, 2011 and 2019. The Corps of Engineers has contracted Darin Hendrickson’s construction company, Hendrickson Enterprises, to build the Ditch 6 levee 8-feet higher. Hendrickson, a lifelong resident of Hamburg, said this project is a big deal for the town.
“Because we feel like it’s going to protect us from flooding,” Hendrickson said. “That’s a huge victory. This last flood cost us millions. I mean, it cost us livelihoods. If we can save the businesses and industry in town, if they stay here or come in and build here due to the protection of this levee, it’s the survival of the town.”
Hendrickson’s hope for the future is simple. “Just flood protection, you know, being able to sleep at night knowing that things are safe,” he said.
The project is expected to start in early May and take six months to complete.
‘Levee. Levee. Save us from the river.’
In 2011, the Ditch 6 levee saved Hamburg, and the community has wanted to build it higher ever since.
As floodwaters rushed toward Hamburg in June of that year, the Corps of Engineers worked with Hendrickson and others to raise the levee’s height. They added 8-feet of dirt, plus an extra foot to account for the flooding conditions.
“The water was coming up against the back of the levee as we were building it,” Hendrickson said. “So it was nail biting.”
Hamburg was spared.
But the addition was only temporary. The Corps said the construction wasn’t ideal, so Hamburg needed to either tear it down or rebuild it to proper code. To rebuild it, Hamburg would have to pay nearly $5 million. So residents filled the town’s main street for a flash mob to raise the money.
“Big Mo keeps on churning. Churning. Flood threats continue, we’re learning. Learning. Levee. Levee. Save us from the river,” they sang and danced to the tune of “Proud Mary.”
According to the town’s mayor, Hamburg raised only about $53,000, so it had to take down the extra dirt. Then in March 2019, another flood came.
An array of factors, including heavy rain, frozen ground and a rapid warming event that melted snow, led to massive flooding along the Missouri River and its tributaries. There wasn’t enough time to shore up the levee.
Two-thirds of Hamburg was submerged after the Missouri River spilled over the top of the Ditch 6 levee. Floodwaters from the Missouri and the Nishnabotna Rivers stuck around Hamburg for months. But the town emerged with enough state and federal funding to pay for a permanent levee raise.
“People have made a lot of exceptions for us, and we recognize it,” said Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain. “And we’re very grateful. We’re not a town that’s used to getting help.”
Crain said she feels blessed. The town has a small annual budget and could never pay for the levee on its own. She estimates the total cost of the levee project is $7-10 million.
“We’re just a little town,” Crain said. “We have five employees. I’m a volunteer mayor.”
Raising levees is ‘rare’
Hamburg’s case is unique. Raising the heights of levees does not happen often.
“In our district, it’s rare,” said Matt Krajewski, the readiness branch chief for the Corps of Engineers Omaha District, which spans 10 states from Bozeman, Montana to Rulo, Nebraska.
Krajewski said levee owners have to request a raise and pay for it. They also must show there is a need and that a higher levee won’t push water onto nearby communities.
Higher levees have the potential to create a lot of bad feelings, sparking so-called “levee wars” on both sides of a river, Krajewski said. In these levee wars, communities compete to build their levees higher and higher for better protection from flooding while making their neighbors more vulnerable.
“We take great pains to make sure that if somebody is wanting to do something like this, that it's studied properly, and it's looked at so that the risk isn't transferred, and then everybody is fully aware of what's going on,” Krajewski said.
In Hamburg’s case, Krajewski said the Ditch 6 levee is not a main levee along the Missouri River, so it won’t push floodwater onto anyone else.
In the Corps’ Omaha District, the only other levee raises that Krajewski said he is aware of are a pair of levees that protect a wastewater treatment plant, agricultural land and residential areas of Bellevue, Nebraska and Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha. The levees, which are the primary line of defense from Missouri and Platte River flooding, abut each other and are owned by the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.
After Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Corps of Engineers started looking at flood elevations. John Winkler, the general manager of Papio-Missouri River NRD, said the district was notified that the levees were “no longer going to be certified to provide 100-year flood protection.”
Papio-Missouri River NRD worked on a plan to rehabilitate those levees and got a permit from the Corps to raise them so they could get back into compliance with FEMA. Work was supposed to start in 2019, but the flood delayed it.
Before the 2019 flood, the two levees had never experienced breaches or overtopping. In 2019, they were overtopped. They were not “designed for that particular event,” Winkler said.
“They just weren’t high enough,” Winkler said. “...If we were done [with raising the levees], it probably would’ve significantly lessened the damage in the area and maybe kept water off the base. Maybe they would’ve still been overtopped, maybe not.”
Work on one of the levees is “significantly completed,” Winkler said. Work on the other levee will happen this year and next year. Winkler expects the $35 million projects to be completed in 2022.
Winkler said since the levees had never been overtopped or breached before the 2019 flood, there was some skepticism over the need for the project and the high cost that accompanied it.
“After that event, I think it’s a good idea what we’re doing,” Winkler said. “Obviously, it’s expensive. But the assets that are there that we’re protecting, it’s definitely worth it.”
The Omaha District of the Corps of Engineers doesn’t have any other requests at this time for levee raises, said the Corps’ Matt Krajewski. But he said there isn’t always a need.
“Not every levee on the Missouri River, every time the water comes up, is in danger of overtopping or creating such an event that the sponsors would be so concerned that they would need to raise the levee,” Krajewski said. “I don’t anticipate that there will be a lot, at least not in the Omaha District.”
But that doesn’t mean that people don’t want higher levees. Sandy Graybill is with two levee districts in northwest Missouri, a little south of Hamburg. She said in a perfect world, she’d never go through another flood, but Graybill doesn’t think she’ll see her districts’ levees raised any time soon.
“That is just not feasible. It’s not going to happen,” Graybill said. “Because you have to raise the entire system along the Missouri River, both the right bank and the left bank. You can’t just raise one section.”
Is moving levees feasible?
Environmental group American Rivers said it’s not the height of levees that’s the problem, but where they are located. Eileen Shader, the director of river restoration for American Rivers, said there are many spots where levees are too close to rivers and the solution is to move them farther back.
“We want to give rivers enough room to safely accommodate the amount of floodwater that they’re going to be experiencing due to climate change,” Shader said. “And if we do that, we are less likely to see levees be repeatedly damaged.”
The Corps of Engineers is working with Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri on a long-term study of the Lower Missouri River and its tributaries to look at the floodplain and see which solutions would reduce future flood risks. Moving levees back would allow more water to go through the floodplain. Matt Krajewski with the Corps said it makes sense and is a logical thing to do, but it would take a lot of resources and “capital,” including getting many stakeholders on board such as farmers and other landowners.
“Is it a good idea?” said Krajewski about levee setbacks. “The study will bear that out.”
Levees are expensive to repair or rebuild every time there is a flood, so Shader said American Rivers sees moving levees back as a “one-time investment.” In Hamburg, a higher levee proved itself against flooding nearly 10 years ago. Now, the town hopes their one-time investment will hold up.
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