SD residents move back home as flood waters ebb

Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Grace Curtis is happy to be moving back home, but cries softly as she talks about historic Missouri River flooding that forced her from her house for three months this summer, and left damage in several states that could total more than $100 million.

"It's been a nightmare," said the 68-year-old widow from Pierre, who later expressed thanks that hastily-built emergency levees — including one just 75 yards from her house — limited damage in the low-lying areas of the state's capital and its cross-river sister city, Fort Pierre.

"Without the levee, it would have been worse," said Curtis, who suffered basement damage. "It would have really been flooded."

Despite well-performing levees, damage totals have quickly added up.

States, cities and counties already have spent millions of dollars trying to protect homes, highways, airports and other facilities from the rising waters, and they face more costs as they clean up the mess left by receding waters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to reimburse government agencies for most of the cost of protecting and repairing roads and other public infrastructure.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said his state already has spent $15 million, about half of that on National Guard troops, and will probably spend another $1 million or more. Fort Pierre expects its bill to reach $10 million, while Pierre expects to spend $13 million. Dakota Dunes already has borrowed $10 million from the state for its expenses.

Flood damage in Minot, where North Dakota's worst flood damage occurred after the Souris River flooded in June and forced about 11,000 people from their homes and damaged about 4,100 houses, has state officials expecting costs will exhaust a $23.5 million disaster relief fund.

Iowa officials said their flood damage total is still unknown but could reach $60 million to $80 million.

"We have roads underwater, and this is a challenge to us," said Pat Hall of the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Services. "Some of this is not going to be evident for a while."

Nebraska Emergency Management Agency officials said preliminary estimates earlier this summer pegged damage totals at $57 million for flooding along the Missouri and Platte rivers, including $43 million in flood-protection measures. Omaha had spent more than $8 million by the middle of August, while the city's national airport, Eppley Airfield, has estimated its flooding bill will be $26 million.

Missouri officials said the state has spent more than $11 million for disaster response, including flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and tornadoes in Joplin, St. Louis and Sedalia. Holt County officials said an estimated $2.5 million has been spent for flood preparation, and another $2 million may be necessary to repairs roads and bridges.

"This is the worst disaster that this county has ever experienced," said Holt County Clerk Kathy Kunkel.

Residents originally feared the worst when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced in late May that a deep Rocky Mountain snowpack and unexpected heavy rains upstream would require record releases from the dams. Some envisioned a wall of water sweeping through their neighborhoods and destroying homes. That didn't happen.

As people built sandbag walls around their homes and moved possessions to higher ground, the corps and cities worked furiously to build earthen levees that protected much of Pierre, Fort Pierre and the Dakota Dunes area in southeastern South Dakota.

"It was a terrible challenge," Fort Pierre Mayor Sam Tidball said of the levee-building effort. "We just didn't have enough time to get done what we thought we should. But it was miraculous what we did get done."

In some parts of Pierre and Fort Pierre, houses that could not be protected by levees were heavily damaged, some likely beyond repair. During the coming weeks, water levels are expected fall in Dakota Dunes and communities downstream in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri.

"I'm glad we're seeing the beginning of the end," Daugaard said.

But South Dakotans threatened by the flood have criticized the corps, which manages the river and its six dams, arguing the agency should have seen the problem coming earlier and gotten rid of more water in the winter and spring. Corps officials have said the reservoirs were in good shape to handle spring runoff until mid-May's torrential rains. May, June and July were three of the top five months for runoff in the 113 years of kept records, they said.

South Dakota cities are organizing cleanup efforts to help residents haul away sandbags. And those hit by the flood are assessing the damage.

Meanwhile, as water levels fall along with releases from nearby Oahe Dam, weary displaced residents from Pierre and Fort Pierre are returning home. The water that dropped off the levees last week was expected to fall back within the river's normal banks on Sunday.

Merle Scheiber doesn't know if his home upstream from Fort Pierre can be saved. For nearly three months, water stood four feet deep in his house in an area that could not be protected by a levee. Water swept into his neighborhood just three days after people learned the flood was coming. He knows it will cost at least $20,000 to gut the interior of the house and get rid of the mold clinging to the walls, but he's not sure if three months of water destroyed the floor joists that support the structure.

"It's been a long summer, very frustrating, very trying," Scheiber said. "When you have lack of control and all this uncertainty that goes with it, you don't know what to do."

And Curtis, who faces the task of repairing her basement, still finds a way to joke about how the flood has disrupted her life and left water standing in her garden.

"All I need is an alligator to give it that special effect. But they're not as tasty as tomatoes in a salad," she said.