Branstad says integrity of levees a concern

COUNCIL BLUFFS Iowa officials said Friday they are concerned about how levees along the Missouri River in the western part of the state will hold up during what is expected to be months of flooding.

The levees are designed to hold back water for hours or a few days, not the months, said Derek Hill, Iowa's director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. With flooding from big releases of water from reservoirs upstream expected to last into August, area residents should have evacuation plans ready in case they have to leave at a moment's notice, he said.

Gov. Terry Branstad expressed similar concerns about the levees during a trip to Council Bluffs, where he toured a wastewater treatment plant and met with workers filling sandbags.

"That's the big question everyone has: How will it hold up?" Branstad said.

The river is rising rapidly because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is increasing the amount of water it releases from upstream reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas to deal with heavy spring rains and snowpack. The river is expected to crest 5 to 7 feet above flood stage in Iowa and Nebraska next week, but the water will remain high until at least August.

Residents in some parts of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota have already been forced from their homes, and a stretch of Interstate 29 in western Iowa has been closed.

During an appearance earlier Friday on the public television program "Iowa Press," Branstad criticized the corps' management of the Missouri River and called for a review.

"I have felt for a long time that the downstream states have not been adequately protected in the flood mitigation work," the governor said.

Also Friday, Iowa announced it had fully opened its emergency operations center to coordinate flood efforts. It had been in partial operation for the past 10 days.

Branstad said during his stop in Council Bluffs that he's impressed with how western Iowa communities are responding to the flood threat and with the number of volunteers stepping up to help build flood barriers. He said the next step is vigilance in watching that levees and barriers to make sure they remain sound.

"The bad thing about the crest is its going to last a long time," he said.

Branstad said most counties along the river have requested technical assistance from the corps, including Hamburg in the southwest corner of the state. The town has been threatened by a handful of small levee breaches that were quickly fixed.

Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain, who met with the governor in Council Bluffs, said four crews hired by the corps are working around the clock to add an extra 5 feet to the top of the levee.

"Our town is dry," Crain said. "We are fighting this flood on dry ground."

There were concerns early this week that a levee across the border in Atchison County, Mo., would give way, sending water back up into Hamburg. About half the town was ordered to evacuate.

But Crain said Friday that most of those residents have been allowed to return home. She said the evacuation order was a precaution as officials worked to come up with a plan to reinforce the levy.

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