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Heavy Rains Bring More Flooding And Road Closures To Southwest Iowa

Katie Peikes
Flooding seen in Hamburg, Ia. on April 9, as water spilled over a breached levee.

People in some parts of southwest Iowa are preparing for more flooding, while other parts are already seeing it from the recent heavy rainfall. Officials worry that rising river levels could push even more water beyond now-useless flood barriers.
According to the National Weather Service in Valley, Neb., the Missouri River at Nebraska City was 22.5 feet high as of 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. It is projected to crest at 23.5 feet, half a foot above moderate flood stage. The Missouri River at Plattsmouth, Neb., was at 31.3 feet as of 3 p.m. Wednesday and projected to crest at 32.2 feet, .2 inches above moderate flood stage. 

Cathy Zapotocny, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Valley, said this is typically the time of year where melting snowpack from the mountains travels down the river.

"It all takes time to travel down the Missouri River," Zapotocny said. "Then you've got the additional spring and summer rains. These all affect the river levels."

Mills County officials on Tuesday afternoon recommended people in a couple of locations prepare to evacuate: South of Gaston Avenue to the Mills-Fremont County line and west of Interstate 29 to the Missouri River.

Officials are concerned not only about the recent rain and rising river levels, but also the fact that the county is left with no protection from flooding earlier this spring. South of Highway 34, there is a 1,200-foot breach on a levee, one of a few that that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has prioritized to fix. The work is estimated to take until June 10.

Sheri Bowen, a spokeswoman for Mills County, said water has been coming back through the breaches as the Missouri River levels have risen, and standing water is rising a bit.

“There’s no protection against that due to the breaches,” Bowen said.

Bowen said most families in the areas at risk were already gone because their homes are severely damaged from flooding in March. The few people that have moved back into their homes in those areas since the March flooding have heeded the warning and have already left, she said.

“We’re estimating around five families that were actively living in their properties,” Bowen said, “and those families are no longer residing there temporarily.”

South of Mills, in Fremont County, the Missouri River at Nebraska City is rising and the Nishnabotna River has crested.

“You’re getting a double whammy for the folks down in Hamburg,” Fremont County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Crecelius said.

Work on levee breaches that were being repaired has temporarily stopped because of the recent heavy rains, saturated ground and safety issues, Crecelius said.

Evacuations for people west of the Bluff Road in the county have remained in place since mid-March because of ongoing issues with standing water, Crecelius said. Levees still need to be repaired.

“So the water is going to come in,” he said. “No matter what we do, the Corps has got to fix that for us. With a clear conscience, there’s no way to let people go home and then have to call them at 2 a.m. and tell them to get out."

The city of Hamburg built a berm to cover the west and southern portions of the city, Crecelius said. The Corps has set up a double row of barriers called HESCO bags down the center of the city as a backup, to prevent more water from getting in.

Road Closures:

State transportation officials on Wednesday closed an estimated 51 miles of interstate in southwest Iowa due to recent rainfall and flooding. Detours will be in place.

In a news release, the Iowa DOT announced the closure of I-29 from Crescent to Loveland. The DOT also closed I-29 from Glenwood to the Missouri state line. 

Officials have also closed several other segments, including Highway 2 from I-29 to the Nebraska state line.

Scott Suhr, the Iowa Department of Transportation’s district transportation planner for southwest Iowa, said the DOT did not anticipate the recent heavy rainfall in western Iowa and had actually just re-opened some roadways like a portion of U.S. 34.

“With all the rain that we’ve had in the last few days, we had to make that decision to close it again, even though it’s frustrating to us because we know the amount of time and effort that was put in to try and restore mobility only to have to close it again,” Suhr said.

The DOT’s goal now, Suhr said, is to assess the roads as quickly as they can as soon as the waters recede.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to open them up fairly quickly and fairly safely for the motorists,” Suhr said.

Suhr said the DOT is expecting heavier traffic on roads that parallel I-29, like U.S. 59 and U.S. 71. Motorists can get the latest traffic information on road closures at 511ia.org.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.