Courtney Nelson remembers evacuating the city of Hornick during the flood of 1996. She was 12 years old.
“It was the middle of the night, but we were just out for one night,” Nelson said. “We were able to come back the next day because the water was nowhere what it is now.”
According to the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, water levels of June 1996 reached almost 25.9 feet, 6 feet above moderate to major flood stage at the West Fork of the Little Sioux River.
Water levels this week have broken that record, reaching about 6.5 feet above flood stage. And things are different for Nelson and the other 200-plus residents who live in Hornick: They have no idea when they’ll be able to return home or what sort of condition their homes are in.
“It’s scary because now I have my own family and I have my own kids that I’m responsible for, and my own home,” Nelson said.
Residents were ordered to evacuate the town Thursday morning after a levee broke along the West Fork of the Little Sioux River. Hornick Mayor Scott Mitchell said the town was emptied in two hours. Many fled to family and friends’ homes, nearby hotels and motels and a shelter set up in Sloan about 7 miles away.
“Nobody is allowed back into Hornick at this time,” Mitchell told a large crowd of residents during a meeting at the fire station in Sloan, where city, county and state officials, MidAmerican Energy, and other groups briefed residents on Hornick’s conditions. “...We’ve got to get rid of a lot of water before it’s safe for people to get back in.”
Drone footage from the Woodbury County Sheriff's Office shows water covering fields, engulfing homes and seeping onto roadways. The main highway has become impassable. Hornick’s Main Street was documented engulfed in 3 feet of water around 11 a.m. Friday, Sheriff Dave Drew reported on Twitter.
It’s unclear when residents will be able to return home. But when they do, they will have drinkable water, said Julie Sievers, an environmental specialist senior with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The city’s water system is intact, she said.
The bad news, Sievers said, is the city’s wastewater system is underwater.
“We will work with the city for recovery as soon as the water goes down, but we simply can’t do anything until the water levels recede,” Sievers said.
Sievers also emphasized that people who have private wells should get their wells tested for contaminants like coliform bacteria if their well was underwater.
Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew assured residents that while they are evacuated, his department will keep the city safe.
“Those that don’t belong in your town will be met by the sheriff and our jail is full but we’ll find room,” Drew said, as the room erupted into laugher.
Residents inquired about everything from their pets they had to leave behind, the recovery process and where they can live as they wait.
“I know it’s hard to predict, but when’s this water going to leave?” one man asked.
According to drone video, water has finished overtopping levees, so the water is on the way down, Mayor Mitchell said.
“How long it’s going to take, I can’t answer that,” Mitchell said. “And nor can [the National Weather Service in] Sioux Falls because the flood damaged the monitor on the bridge.”
The National Weather Service confirmed the flood gauge broke. Mitchell said city officials were taking readings of the river by hand for the service, but they can’t get back into the city to get any additional data.
While she waits to be able to return home, Courtney Nelson has been staying at a friend’s house in Sioux City. She said she wants to get back, but she’s worried what the damage is going to look like.
“It’s scary not knowing,” Nelson said. “You just literally take things minute by minute as to what’s going to happen and where you can go the next minute.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds has issued a disaster proclamation for more than 30 counties, including Woodbury, to use state resources and money to help residents recover from flooding.
Elsewhere in Western Iowa:
The mandatory evacuation was lifted Friday morning for a part of Missouri Valley in Harrison County. Missouri Valley Mayor Shawn Kelly said about 800 people can return home. Two-hundred people live in an area that is still underwater. Fourteen residents had to be rescued by boat Thursday by local and DNR officials.
In Sioux City, officials are expecting minor flooding along the Missouri Riverfront this weekend. The Missouri River is expected to crest Saturday 1 foot above minor flood stage and recede a couple hours later.