Summer 2011 meant flooded fields and roads from bluff to bluff

Nov 4, 2011
by DTN

Where it first breaks over the crest of the Loess Hills from the east, Highway 136 offers a spectacular view of the Missouri River Valley in Atchison County, MO. Treelined oxbow river channels, such as Langdon Lake, still provide groves of cottonwoods and wildlife habitat among fields of row crops.

The Oswald farm was covered in 2 to 8 feet of water this summer. In summer, the valley is the greenest thing anyone can imagine.

June 21 marked the first day of summer. But everything changed on June 23.

A stretch of levee failed west of Watson, MO, flooding about half the river valley here in Atchison County, including Highway 136, from bluff to bluff.

The view from the bluffs turned from green to a watery gray almost overnight.

It stayed that way through Independence Day, Labor Day, and the autumnal equinox. Our farm had just two days of summer this growing season before the crop year ended.

Finally on Oct. 18, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced an official end to the flood.

During river floods, tributary levees act as road blocks to drainage, creating a series of basins. During this year’s inundation, levee failures cascaded from one to the next.

Before flood waters in the basins can begin to recede, they must overtop the levee blocking their escape and wash it away. Those levees, rainfall, and the volume of release at Gavin’s Point Dam determine the depth of the water in each basin. So after about three days, the surface of the water that covered my front yard and surrounded my house was almost exactly the same number of feet above sea level as the top of the levee at Rock Creek, four miles to the south.

At peak flood, our rolling bottom farm had 2 to 8 feet of water. The ground floor of our house sits about 8 inches above the levee at Rock Creek.

After water exiled us from our home, we watched the flood from truck stop parking lots or highway shoulders. On the third day following the levee breach, we spent Sunday afternoon at our daughter’s house as the water crept across their fields, into the barn lots, and eventually the old barn itself. Then we watched a single trickle creep up the driveway through the door of their garage. She and her husband didn’t get much sleep that night when 4 inches of rain fell. None of us did as we waited for the call that water was at the front door. Daybreak showed the river had stopped about 20 feet short of the porch.

Their 150-year-old farm house sits 18 inches above the Rock Creek levee.

Some homes on the bottom had water to the second story. Others, like ours, sat high enough that ground floors stayed dry. Older homes with tongue-andgroove flooring and plaster/ lathe construction won’t absorb water and will clean up the best. But most houses had at least 2 to 4 feet of water or more, for weeks. In that much water, oak floor ing warps and ripples like broken piano keys. Sheet rock is porous, like a sponge. Water and mold creep up walls and across ceilings. Flooded homes are dark, moist, and warm—the perfect breeding ground for fungus.

After 14 weeks they’ve become toxic.

When water comes in from the river, drainage ditches run backwards. Low spots fill and spread across entire fields until, eventually, every acre in the flood plain is covered. Depending on elevation, water depths here range from several feet to just a few inches. Wherever the current goes, it takes sand and silt along. Ditches are filled level full with sediment. That stops drainage even after the river is gone so that some fields remain ponded for weeks. In other places, holes are washed out where the river scours, or crosses manmade obstructions like highways or railroad tracks. Besides the obvious damage, holes open up underground deposits of sand so fine it’s almost powder. It can remain in suspension until the water slows. Then sand settles out on top of the land in drifts, like snow. Sand drifts are expensive and difficult to deal with because they must be spread, plowed under, or hauled away by heavy equipment. Smaller amounts, an inch or two, may actually benefit heavy clay soils by making them more porous.

The best soil on our farm is a sandy loam deposited there by the ancient river.

At first, crops look healthy until finally submerged. Shorter soybeans disappear first. Corn stands straight and tall, then the green color starts to fade as stalks die and topple like limp pieces of rope. Eventually, even crops in just a few inches of water suffocate.

Long-term floods like this don’t play favorites with plants. In 1952, my parents first returned to the farm in about two weeks. The trees survived. In 1993, it was the same. This year in 2011, it was 14 weeks before we could drive down the road to home. Trees died by the dozens. The blue spruces in the front yard are gone. So are the apple trees. The big, native soft maple, five feet through that sprouted out of a scrap pile in 1938, the year our house was built, is almost dead. One of the three biggest sycamores in Missouri is on our farm. I don’t know if it will make it.

Water damage is one thing, but in a flood, things float away. If not secured or removed, propane, fertilizer, and fuel tanks leave on the rising tide. Spare tires, lumber, barn doors, buckets, cans, plastic bottles, firewood, and fence posts do, too. Corn stalks in sheltered areas form mats almost impossible to walk through.

Highest spots look like trashy island collection points for debris.

With unpredictable wind and current, it’s hard to say where it all came from or where it will all go.

This year, we spent the summer watching Highway 136 dissolve. Unbelievably, the current tore away footthick concrete, scraping it off bits at a time like peeling paint. Once the surface was gone, the road bed went the same way. Gaps were opened 100 to 850 feet wide and 30 to 70 feet deep.

The current through those holes is swift. This summer, one boat was capsized while passing through one of the breaks, but the boaters survived. To our south in Holt County, a Highway Patrol K-9 officer and his dog were drowned when they became caught in undertow near a culvert.

When we pull off the main highway, it’s onto back roads surfaced with crushed limestone. The current crossing some of these was so wicked it swept the rock away, exposing the old oil base laid in the fifties and sixties when oil was cheap enough to pour onto roads. Where the water ran fastest, it chewed holes 4 to 15 feet deep.

Like always, the good thing about bad things is the best they bring out in people. This flood was hard on cellular phone service in the area. I saw men do the impossible by floating a full 1,000-gallon propane tank against the current to a phone tower in 6 feet of water so a generator could power equipment on a raised platform alongside. I saw volunteers come to sand bag day after day. Friends brought us food and helped as we moved our belongings to high ground. And I met National Guardsmen who put their lives on hold to protect the lives and personal property of people and keep them safe.

The Guard is made up of students, workers, truck drivers, and security guards. Two were known as Odie senior and Odie junior, a father and his son deployed for the first time, together. They bivouacked in our elementary school where my grandkids learned their ABCs. Girlfriends and wives came to visit throughout the summer-long flood. One guardsman left halfway through to get married.

People stopped by his post before the big event to wish him luck.

As far as deployments go, northwest Missouri has to be better than the Middle East—even with the flood. When they grew weary of MREs, guardsmen took in the local diner for lunch. Thanks to my neighbors, not many of them ever had to pay for meals. A table in the school held a never-ending supply of food and baked goods provided by the Rock Port community. One evening, I delivered monster cookies, compliments of my daughter, to the guys on night duty at the intersection near her house. On hot nights, my son-in-law stretched extension cords from his shop to their truck to power fans.

Eventually the Guard left, and soon after that, the water began to leave, too. In its place was a putrid smell of rotting vegetation that won’t go away until the valley greens again next spring.

Mother Nature can fix that. What she can’t fix are the levees and the damage done by a summer-long inundation.

Views on that are mixed as federal funding for repairs remains on hold. — Richard Oswald, DTN