KANSAS CITY — Northwest Missourians were preparing Thursday to either evacuate or help fill sandbags as the Missouri River approached what Gov. Jay Nixon said would be "unprecedented" water levels — even for a region that has plenty experience dealing with floods.
Massive loads of sand and more than 75,000 sandbags were placed in strategic spots around Holt County, and residents there were waiting to see where the sandbags were most needed to reinforce the river's banks.
"It's coming, and we're ready," said Kathy Kunkel, Holt County clerk. "This is not our first flood. ... We didn't even leave flood mode from last year."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been warning Missouri and other downstream states recently about its releases from Missouri River reservoirs that are full from record rainfall across the northern Plains and heavy runoff from Rocky Mountain snowpack. The corps has said flooding, which has already begun north of Missouri, could last for weeks.
Nixon warned Missourians on Thursday that they should brace for "unprecedented high water levels" on the Missouri River, which skirts down from the state's far northwest border and cuts across the state's midsection from Kansas City to St. Louis. He also urged residents along the river to pay attention to their local county emergency officials
"Missourians will be facing imminent flooding along the Missouri River and additional rainfall and snowmelt within the watershed will only worsen the situation,'" Nixon said at a press conference in St. Joseph.
He said the state has been working with the Missouri National Guard, the State Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies to prepare.
The Army Corps of Engineers has said it plans to reach a record release of 150,000 cubic feet per second from five of its six Missouri River basin reservoirs north of Missouri by mid-June. A daily average release for these dams in early June typically ranges from about 70,000 to 90,000 cubic feet per second.
The releases were expected to push river levels this summer to well past flood stage in several areas around Missouri, particularly St. Joseph, where crests could be about 15 feet above its 17-foot flood stage.
Scott Watson, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, said it's unclear when the worst of the flooding will likely occur, in part because it will depend on how much it rains in the coming days and weeks. But he said the corps releases mean Missouri will likely be facing the consequences for a while.
"We're going to have a busy summer," he said. "Depending on the rainfall, we could have very significant and prolonged flooding along the Missouri."
Forecasts for the next week in Missouri call for fairly dry weather with a chance of isolated thunderstorms. But more storms are forecast north of the state, Watson said.
While Holt County, a third of which is in floodplain, sustained about $100 million in agricultural losses in flooding from 2010, Kunkel said this year could be worse. There's particular concern about levees becoming saturated because the Missouri River has been above the 17-foot flood stage in sections of northwest Missouri since early April, and forecasts call for the river to be at about 25 feet for months.
"We're not panicked because we have such a history of dealing with flooding," Kunkel said. "But this certainly is looking to be a historic flood again."
Golden Triangle Energy, an ethanol company based in Craig, a few miles from the Missouri River, hoped to avoid the shipping problems it had when the river flooded last spring. Golden Triangle CFO, Sheri Sharp, said company officials have been considering various "what if scenarios" about this year's floods.
"We're just figuring out, like what if they shut the power off, or we can't get people in to work," Sharp said. "We're in the floodplain, but we built the plant up so it would hopefully just be an island sticking up."