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Almost three years later, western Iowa towns’ flood recovery is far from complete

Katie Peikes
IPE file
The small western Iowa town of Hamburg sits submerged after major flooding from the Missouri River and its tributaries in 2019.

Western Iowa towns hit hard by the 2019 floods are still working toward recovery. The towns of Hamburg and Pacific Junction are awaiting levee certifications to move their communities forward.

As Hamburg puts the finishing touches on one levee, the town’s mayor Cathy Crain is already focusing on how they can find the funding to build another flood protective barrier.

She said her top priority for Hamburg is getting the town out of the floodplain by constructing another levee to protect the town from flood waters coming from the south. She said adding a third levee in the town could transform the small western Iowa town’s future.

“If we could do that, you have entirely changed a town and a county because we would have far more possibilities,” Crain said.

Nati Harnik
A home in Hamburg is engulfed after major flooding from the Missouri River and its tributaries in 2019.

Hamburg and Pacific Junction both faced devastating destruction almost three years ago when major flooding from the Missouri River and its tributaries’ submerged the towns in water. Since then, all of the towns’ energy and resources have been put into rebuilding.

The towns hope they can use some of the state’s allotted infrastructure funding to assist in recovery efforts. Alongside other southwest Iowa mayors, the cities’ mayors met with U.S. Representative Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, earlier this month to outline the communities’ greatest needs. Flood recovery initiatives topped that list.

Katie Peikes
IPR file
Pacific Junction mayor Andy Young works on repairing flooded homes in 2019.

Andy Young, the mayor of Pacific Junction, a town of 97 people, said that the town can’t move forward until its levees are accredited. He said much of the emergency funding they received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) cannot be used until levee certification is complete.

“You can tell me I have all this money and everything, but I can't do anything with it because my levees aren’t certified,” Young said. “So hopefully, we’ll be moving forward so we can get our town back or a resemblance of it.”

Despite this obstacle, he said Pacific Junction has made progress – albeit slow. They’re almost done tearing down the nearly 100 homes that were heavily damaged by the flood waters.

After the disaster, more than 350 people moved out of the already small town. With only a little over 90 people remaining, it’s been difficult to fund everything from snow removal to street repairs, he said.

“How do you pay for stuff that you don’t have money to pay for?” Young asked.

Katie Peikes
IPR file
Debris sits in Hamburg, IA after a destructive flood submerged the town in 2019.

Crain estimates her town is working on over 70 projects to complete as part of their first phase of flood recovery. She counts over 90 more to follow in phase two of their recovery plan.

She said so far the town has been overwhelmed by the state support they’ve received. Crain is grateful to not have to rebuild the town by herself, she said.

“This little town here that fought on its own for over 170 years, we just quietly fought floods forever,” she said. “I learned how to sandbag at five. It's in our DNA. We know how to do this. And here it is the first time we've had help.”

“If we could do that, you have entirely changed a town and a county because we would have far more possibilities."
Cathy Crain, mayor of Hamburg

But, she wants to see funding go toward protection of the town, not just recovery. She plans on asking the state legislature this session for the tens of millions of dollars it will take to construct the flood barrier it needs to avoid future disaster.

“It will be a massive undertaking,” she said. “All that dirt has to be hauled in, and I'm talking about massive amounts. And there'll have to be a lot of land purchased along there for us to be able to build this levee, but it needs to be done.”

She said one of the town’s most important resources right now is patience. She predicts it will be another three years until the town begins to once again resemble what it once was.

Crain just hopes that just one thing will look different: the town’s flood protection measures. She said the future of Hamburg lies in the strength of the levees it builds.

What we’ve always said is we just wanted a fighting chance,” she said. “This is a fighting chance.”

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.