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Community Steps Up, Water Begins To Recede

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By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

In a week of bad news that only seemed to trend toward worse with each passing day, the nearly 500 people forced from their homes due to historic flooding in western Mills County got some welcome news Friday.

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The flood waters that had steadily and devastatingly risen for more than a week had finally begun to recede.
“The water is beginning to go down,” said Larry Hurst, Mills County Emergency Management Director.

On Saturday, Mills County was named as one 56 Iowa counties as a federal disaster area by President Donald Trump.
Multiple failures to the Missouri River levee in Mills County is being blamed for as much as 10 feet of water pooling in much of the western quarter of the county. The massive amounts of water and the topography of the land in the area have caused the floodwater to flow north, counter to the flow of the Missouri River, and back fill hundreds of square miles of the county’s western edge.

Hurst said it’s believed the water level in Pacific Junction crested at between nine and 10 feet and eight feet in the area of the Interstate 29 and Highway 34 interchange. Hurst also said the Missouri River, which got as high as 39.37 feet on March 17, had come down nearly six feet by March 22.

Hurst called the disaster the result of a “perfect storm” of flooding scenarios: warming temperatures causing rapid snow melt, heavy rains, ice jams on the Platte and Missouri Rivers and the sudden release of massive amounts of water from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota all as contributing factors.

County officials have said that more than 320,000 cubic feet of water per second was rushing through the Platte and Missouri River junction west of Mills County prior to the levee breaching here.

That “intense water” caused catastrophic failures to levees up and down the Missouri River in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

As of Sunday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported there were 47 breaches to the levee stretching over 350 miles along the Missouri, Platte and Elkhorn Rivers.

At least five of those levee breaches occurred in Mills County.

The first breach occurred a half mile south of Highway 34 on March 16. Not long after, breaches followed just north of the Plattsmouth Bridge, which led to overtopping along several portions to both the north and south. Massive amounts of water then poured in, leaving a large swatch of the county from border to border and west of the Loess Hills to the to Missouri River underwater. Those residing in the area were given little time to evacuate and most have not been able to return home since.

While the flood waters appear to be showing signs of going down, Hurst cautioned against celebrating just yet.
In a standing-room only information meeting Sunday in the Glenwood Community High School Auditorium, Hurst and his team showed drone footage and photos of the flooding. Many in the audience who have been displaced by the flooding gasped at the destruction to their homes and properties.

“The water is coming off,” Hurst told the audience. “We know it’s coming off and we want to get you back home. But that’s something we’ll have to continue to monitor. You’ll have to trust us to know when it’s safe to return.”

In multiple interviews last week, Hurst declined to put a timeline on when residents might be able to return to their homes.

Drinking water issues have only compounded the problems faced by both flood evacuees and more than 5,000 Glenwood residents.

The water shortage forced the Glenwood Resource Center to move 85 of its clients with severe intellectual and physical disabilities from its facility to the Woodward Resource Center 150 miles away.  Mills County Supervisor Richard Crouch said Friday the those residents will be returning to Glenwood this week.

Since last Tuesday, the school district has operated under no water or heavy water restrictions in all four of its buildings. The district is using donated bottled water for drinking and 80 portable toilets across the district.

Superintendent Devin Embray said the district is consuming 175 cases, or about 4,200 bottles, of water per day. The district has approximately 2,000 students and 375 staff.

As of Monday, nearly 500 residents remained displaced by the flooding, according to Mills County Public Information Officer Sheri Bowen. The flood waters and the lack of viable drinking water has forced another 20 businesses to shutter their doors.

The county did issue partial release of mandatory evacuation orders for several areas of the northwest part of the county, allowing residents in those areas to return to their homes. But most of the flood-displaced victims continue to stay with family or friends in the area or at a Red Cross shelter in Council Bluffs.

The Mills County Storehouse, area churches and the Mills County YMCA have assisted relief efforts. Material donations began arriving in the area early last week and have not stopped.

Monica Mayberry, a volunteer at Grace United Methodist Church, said they were serving meals to more than 100 people a day last week.

The Mills County Storehouse was inundated with donated items all last week with most going back out the door to flood evacuees as fast as it came in.

“We gave out 200 half gallons of milk in two days,” said Barbara Kaiman with the storehouse.

A Mills County Flood Fund has also been set up through the Omaha Community Foundation. Funds can be directed to this account through local bank and online at omahafoundation.org/donate and by select “Southwest Iowa Fund” then “Mills County Flood Fund.”  Donations are also being accepted at First National Bank, Glenwood State Bank and Great Western Bank in Glenwood, Malvern Bank and Houghton State Bank in Emerson.

On Saturday, the county consolidated its community flood relief efforts at the Mills County YMCA. The YMCA is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. while serving as the central location for up-to-date information as well as place for flood evacuees to get food, take a shower and get community support. Free hot meals are served daily.

With the out-pouring of support and material donations, Bowen said the process of sorting, storing and distributing those goods to those who need them the most is becoming a “resource management issue.

“The support has been amazing,” she said. “We couldn’t have asked for more support than we’ve gotten, but managing all of it is a big task. We’re asking people that want to donate materials to call ahead, ask us what’s needed and let us know what you’re bringing and we can direct them.”

Bowen said cash donations to the relief fund and gift cards for flood evacuees are always welcome.
Kevin Mayberry, Mills County Engineer, said nearly 100 miles of road in the western parts of the county remain closed or restricted because of flooding.

Interstate 29, which had been closed from the Missouri state line to Council Bluffs, reopened Saturday from the Highway 34 exit to Council Bluffs. Highway 34 remains closed from Interstate 29 into Nebraska.

There’s no clear timeline of when either Interstate 29 south of Highway 34 or Highway 34 west of the interstate will re-open.

In response to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ disaster declarations for many Iowa counties, the Iowa Department of Revenue has granted a 30-day extension for floor impacted residents and businesses to file taxes.

Sunday’s meeting at Glenwood Community High School brought out more than 750 area residents. Between gasps at the extent of the flooding to audience members shouting out “that’s my house” during the emergency management’s presentation, the most common question was one neither Hurst nor anyone in attendance could answer: when can we go home?

Hurst said “re-entry” into flood impacted areas will be a “process.” A process of safety precautions, inspections and evaluations.

“Normalcy is not going to come short term,” Hurst said. “Short-term or even mid-term. It may be long-term. We can’t even target dates on what ‘mid-term’ is. We have to get in those areas, see the impact and the scouring affects on the infrastructure before we know just how bad things are.”