Their mission is to identify potential problems and trouble spots that could compromise the structural integrity of the Missouri River levee system in western Mills County.
Working in teams of two, soldiers from the Iowa Army National Guard have been patrolling Mills County’s 26 miles of levee since mid-June. Most of the soldiers assigned to Mills County are members of the 1168th Transportation Co., based out of Audubon, Perry and Marshalltown.
At any given time, the county’s levees are in the hands of 20 – 30 soldiers.
“The soldiers that are on levee patrol come down and they have a rotational system where they will walk the levee and identify any boils that are coming up or any areas that they feel are soft,” said Lt. Col. Joni Ernst of Red Oak. “They go through a training class when they’re put on the levees so they know what to look for. They’ll flag those and radio those in to the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) so that they can be checked by the levee managers.”
Ernst, who is in charge of critical infrastructure assessment for both Mills and Fremont counties, said the soldiers assigned to levee patrol are on active duty and will be in place as long as the river remains a threat to western Iowans.
“They will stay on as long as needed or as long as this mission continues,” Ernst said. “They do rotate units, so if we see this is going to stretch through the fall, we may start rotating people.”
Most of the soldiers are working daily eight-hour shifts. Each shift begins with the soldiers meeting at the Bluff View / BP convenience store and fuel station, located west of the U.S. Highway 34 – Interstate 29 interchange. From there, the soldiers learn their levee assignment for the day and are briefed and alerted to potential issues they might encounter.
Most of the soldiers conduct their inspections on foot, but the National Guard personnel also have use of John Deere Gator utility vehicles to make their way up and down the levee.
Mills County Emergency Management Director Larry Hurst said the soldiers have identified dozens of trouble spots on both sides of the levee. In addition to the boils, which occur when water under pressure starts bubbling or sprouting up through the soil of the levee, the soldiers are also looking for “varmint holes” created by gophers and badgers. Gopher or badger holes are believed to have been a cause for a major levee breach last month in Fremont County near Hamburg.
Hurst said the soldiers’ efforts, combined with the work of levee managers and volunteers, have helped the county maintain its levee system through six weeks of high waters on the Missouri.
“It’s a very significant team effort,” he said. “We have three major levee districts along the river in Mills County. All three of those levee districts are made up of volunteers, individuals that volunteer to maintain the levee, inspect the levee, to repair it and to acquire money (both federally and locally) to repair it. It’s been a real long, hard effort to maintain the integrity of the levee system.”
The soldiers on the levee also have security responsibilities. Only authorized personnel are allowed on the federally-owned levee. Trespassers face a $500 fine.
“Every night, we usually have someone come up and ask if they can see the levee,” Cadet Curtis Nielsen said. “For obvious reasons, we can’t allow them to go on the levee.”
Hurst said he’s pleased Mills County’s levee system has held up to this point, but cautioned that water levels in the Missouri River are expected to stay high for several more weeks.
“We’re not through this yet,” Hurst said. “I have high confidence in the structural integrity of the levees in Mills County based on the work I’ve seen done thus far, but you never know with Mother Nature.”
Mills County public information officer Sheri Bowen reported Monday that a large levee repair project south of Highway 370 has been completed and three areas north of 370 were being fixed this week for seepage water detected inside the levee.