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Rising Missouri River sends South Dakotans packing

Wednesday, June 1, 2011 | 7:58 p.m. CDT; updated 3:46 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Dump trucks haul dirt to build up roads Sunday in an area of Fort Pierre, S.D., where rising water from the Missouri River has already crept into a residential area. Water levels are rising as the Oahe Dam releases water to drain flows from heavy rains upstream.

DAKOTA DUNES, S.D. — Dump trucks and moving vans crowded the streets of Dakota Dunes on Wednesday, hauling in dirt to build up miles of levees protecting the small southeast South Dakota town and carrying away belongings for hundreds of residents leaving before what could be a prolonged summer of Missouri River flooding.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard was asking residents in threatened areas of Pierre, the state capital, and neighboring Fort Pierre to evacuate their homes by 8 p.m. Thursday because of rising Missouri River waters. He said 800 of the 1,100 homes in Dakota Dunes could be subject to flooding.

"As the water flow increases, we want to make sure we protect human life as we evaluate how the levees are doing, how fast the water is being released and whether the areas are going to be safe," Daugaard said. 

Daugaard said it is not a mandatory evacuation and said the announcement was not in response to new information. He said law enforcement officials were to begin going door to door Wednesday evening to tell residents about the request.

Meanwhile, officials said progress is being made on levees being built to protect Dakota Dunes, Pierre and Fort Pierre.

Dakota Dunes, the carefully planned community of 2,500 — which sprang up just a few decades ago with an 18-hole Arnold Palmer-designed golf course and a mix of corporate headquarters that includes Tyson Fresh Meats — is among the early trouble spots as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases excess water from Missouri River dams after record rainfall across the northern Plains.

Heavy runoff from melting snow on the Rocky Mountains could soon compound the problem, and officials are planning possible mandatory evacuations in Dakota Dunes, Pierre and Fort Pierre.

Protective levees were expected to reach above river levels in all three cities, but about 2,000 people and 800 homes and businesses remained threatened by flooding in Pierre, with several hundred more people in Fort Pierre's flood zone.

Much of Montana, where the Missouri River hit hardest before rolling down to the Dakotas, caught its breath Wednesday and looked to make repairs as floodwaters at least temporarily receded. The state also braced for more to come as heavy winter snowpack dissipates, and Big Horn County — where the Crow Indian Reservation suffered substantial flooding — ordered 50,000 sandbags for the next round. Mild forecasts pushed fears of more serious flooding further into June.

Meanwhile, the city of Minot, N.D., struggled with a different waterway. The Souris River's swift rise had about 10,000 people — a quarter of the city's population — searching for places to stay after the mayor issued a mandatory evacuation order a day earlier. Still, residents got a bit of good news Wednesday when the National Weather Service predicted the fast-moving Souris would crest slightly lower than expected.

It was the Army Corps' plan to increase the rate of water being released from Gavins Point Dam upstream of Dakota Dunes that is causing concern for the community situated at the junction of South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. The Army Corps plans to gradually increase releases through this week before peaking in mid-June.

Dakota Dunes was formed in 1988 as a 2,000-acre venture by an Iowa developer and swelled by drawing people and business attracted to the state's absence of personal and corporate income taxes. Employees of companies like computer manufacturer Gateway eventually made their homes there, and the area ranked as one of South Dakota's wealthiest.

Retirees Larry and Connie Chapman said they were among the first to move in. On Wednesday, they loaded belongings into trailers and vehicles, unsure when they would be back. The governor had cautioned people to be prepared to be out as long as two months due to all the water that has to come down the Missouri.

"There's nothing to say other than what's happened, and 'why' is history, and there's no point dwelling on it," Connie Chapman said. "We'll move forward. We have a lot of faith."

Like many of the town's residential streets, the Chapmans' was crowded with cargo trailers, moving trucks, pickups and large semi-trailers. Traffic in and out was brisk as Highway Patrol troopers manned the main intersection to keep everyone moving, including the 70 trucks being used to bring dirt and manpower to work on the levee system. Two Black Hawk helicopters placed half-ton sandbags in areas that couldn't be reached by the vehicles.

Officials hope to have levee construction completed by Saturday, said Beth Hermanson, a spokeswoman at the state incident command center.

"That doesn't mean we'll be buttoned up and done ... but it's a target, and we have a significant plan in place," she said.

Homeowners removed furnaces and other basement equipment that could be damaged by water. Plumbers plugged basement floor drains to prevent sewage backups. Only a few homes were fully ringed with sandbags, but many had them protecting ground-level windows to the basement. Some 200 National Guard members and 80 prison inmates helped fill them up.

Nancy Ebert was among residents who stashed household goods in a large semi-trailer to be hauled away and parked on a lot. She and her two adult children, ages 20 and 17, had just moved into their duplex in January, and many possessions remained boxed up, so loading the truck didn't take long. Ebert still had the "For Sale" sign, and stuck it back in her yard as a joke.

But she said she had no intention of fleeing.

"We're not leaving," she said. "They shouldn't stop us from coming back if there's no risk."

Ebert said she can't afford a motel and can't pay her mortgage unless she works. So she kept a small refrigerator, microwave oven, inflatable air mattresses and patio furniture on hand.

"The only thing we'll miss is a shower," she said. "We've got water, but it's cold because we took the heater out of the basement." 


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