Rain forecast could worsen floods in South Dakota

Saturday, May 28, 2011 | 3:45 p.m. CDT

PIERRE, S.D. — Work began Saturday on emergency levees to try to protect homes and public property in Pierre and Fort Pierre from rising water levels on the Missouri River, but officials said predicted heavy rains upstream could drastically worsen the flooding outlook.

Several hundred homeowners in low-lying areas on both sides of the river have been working day and night since Thursday to move their belongings to higher levels of their homes and lay sandbags. They're trying to protect their houses as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pushes more water through the already-full Missouri River reservoirs to drain flows from melting snow and recent heavy rains.

Eric Stasch, operations manager at Oahe Dam five miles upstream from Pierre, said corps officials have determined that additional heavy rains are likely in the same basin that received as much as 10 inches of rain the past two weeks. That could mean the corps will have to increase releases from the Oahe Dam and other dams on the river sooner than previously scheduled, he said.

Corps managers for the upper Missouri River were expected to decide Saturday what adjustments would be made in releases from the dam.

The increased flows from the dams are expected to last at least until sometime in July to deal with the melting snowpack from the northern Rocky Mountains.

Releases from Oahe Dam have been increasing in recent days and moved to 85,000 cubic feet per second Saturday, more than three times the normal flow for this time of year. Releases were supposed to be held steady for about a week, until the levees were built, but that could change with the new prediction of more rainfall, Stasch said.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he planned to meet later Saturday with top corps officials and give them a tour of the area. State officials also are working with the corps to enhance the levees and possibly build them higher than the 4 feet previously planned.

"I know this bad news is going to be somewhat disheartening," Daugaard said.

However, he said people in the area are helping each other move possessions and place sandbags around houses. The governor again urged residents in the projected flood areas not to rely on the planned levees because they may not get built fast enough.

State and local agencies must first protect public facilities and utilities, so homeowners need to be responsible for protecting their own property, he said.

"Self-reliance is essential," Daugaard said.

City officials said no count has been made of how many homes could be affected by floodwaters. But even before the corps increased its projected releases earlier this past week, they had predicted more than 300 homes in the two cities would be in danger of flooding.

No evacuation orders were in effect Saturday, but mayors of the two cities said many people have already secured their homes and moved elsewhere. Water, sewer and electrical systems so far are not in danger, the mayors said.

Fort Pierre Mayor Sam Tidball said some roads in the city on the west bank of the river were already covered with water Saturday morning. The city was working to raise the level of the roads so homeowners and emergency vehicles could reach all areas, he said.

"We're still keeping our fingers crossed as to how much we can get done on the levees prior to having a much higher flow of water," Tidball said.

After reaching a flow of 85,000 cubic feet per second Saturday, releases from Oahe Dam had not been projected to increase again for another week. Releases had been planned to increase June 4 to 6 to 100,000 cubic feet per second and then rise again in late June or early July to 110,000 cubic feet per second or more.

However, that could change because "conditions are deteriorating," Stasch said.

He said the contract to build about 1.5 miles of levees on each side of the river was settled Friday night, and the contractor began work early Saturday. The construction company will be paid $1.8 million for work in Fort Pierre and about $2.5 million for levees in Pierre, Stasch said.

Daugaard has activated three National Guard units, with 300 soldiers already working Saturday and another 200 to arrive Tuesday.

The emergency started Thursday when the corps announced that more water than previously projected would have to be released from the Missouri River dams to deal with water flowing in from recent heavy rains in eastern Montana and Wyoming and western portions of South Dakota and North Dakota.

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