HAMBURG, Iowa — Residents are holding their collective breath as Missouri River flood waters creep closer to Hamburg's last line of defense.
Fire Chief Dan Sturm said floodwaters Tuesday morning were about two miles from a levee around the town that has been built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the past two weeks.
That new levee is all that protects the town following a 300-foot breach in the main levee Monday. That break sent brown Missouri River water churning toward Hamburg.
“The Corps is finishing up by putting plastic over the entire levee and (residents) are plugging holes near the big overpass and the railroad tracks. In about 24 hours, we'll see what happens,” Sturm said.
On Monday, heavy earth-moving equipment shored up the new levee's dirt wall as those who hadn't abandoned the area loaded the last of their possessions into pickups and trailers.
“There's going to be a lot of people who are going to have a lot of hardship over this,” said Lelan Burge, while his sons and grandchildren moved the heavy appliances out of their house.
“I bet a lot of 'em won't move back.”
Iowa Transportation Department officials said the levee breach will probably close a roughly 20-mile stretch of Interstate 29 within the next two days as floodwater flows south and east. Once that happens, stretches of I-29 will be cut off to metro-area drivers traveling north or south. Portions of I-29 are already closed north of Council Bluffs.
The Interstate would close from the Iowa Highway 2 interchange to an exit 23 miles south near Rock Port, Mo., officials said.
Floodwater also will cover farmland north of the breach until it reaches the level of water in the Missouri, corps officials said. The breach also closed all of State Highway 333 in Iowa and Missouri.
This water, however, was not expected to threaten Iowa Highway 2. But that highway, which leads to Nebraska City, already faces its own threat from Missouri River waters.
The big breach occurred about five miles west of Hamburg. Corps officials said it would take floodwater pouring through the hole about 48 hours to reach the current top of a backup levee protecting Hamburg.
By then, however, crews expect to add three feet of clay and other material to the top of the 1.5-mile-long backup levee, the last defensive ring between the river and the town.
“We're in a bit of a race with time now,'' Col. Robert Ruch, corps district commander, said Monday in Omaha.
“The water is really flowing down there,'' Ruch said. “We are still trying to prevent the inundation of the city of Hamburg.''
No floodwater was in the community Monday. Ruch planned to visit Hamburg Tuesday.
Army Corps of Engineers projections show that in a worst-case scenario, given the volume of water being released upstream, a levee break could leave 8 feet to 10 feet of standing water in the southern part of Hamburg.
The area includes manufacturing and agricultural businesses. Water could reach the fire station and city hall, but it most likely wouldn't reach the northern part of town where most residents live.
But it's enough to force Lori and Kevin Burge from their home on Hamburg's southern boundary for the second time since 1993.
The couple hadn't been married long when they moved into the worn blue house near the railroad tracks the year before. The '93 flood pushed underground water into the house, and they had to go.
Things returned to normal once the water receded, Lori Burge said, as she stood in her front yard Monday. The couple moved back in, started a family, started over.
“Had a pretty nice life, until now,” she said. Hamburg's southern half was evacuated last week after the first of the partial breaches in the levee in rural Atchison County, Mo.
Some Hamburg residents aren't sure when, or if, floodwaters will claim their property. That hasn't stopped them from preparing for the worst.
Downtown, a nearly 10-foot pile of dirt and plastic tarp surrounded the Blue Moon Bar & Grill.
The pub's wooden floors and pool table have belonged to Vicki Sjulin and her family since 1972. Dad runs the grill most mornings. Mom works behind the counter.
“It's been the local watering hole for a long time,” Sjulin said Monday. “Now it's just going to be a water hole.”
Sjulin said she planned to keep the business open as long as possible, until the local utility company cuts power. Frustrated residents poured in and out of the bar to discuss the rising water and their plans to escape them.
“People here are angry, and they want to know why we're at the point we're at,” she said. “This is a total man-made flood, in spite of the high snowfall and rain. Everyone's question is, who made these choices?”
Built by the corps in the 1940s, the levee sustained three recent minor breaches before Monday's incident broke a section one mile south of the Iowa-Missouri state line. About two hours after that breach, floodwater broke through a levee farther south in Holt County, Mo. Officials there planned to intentionally breach the levee downstream to take pressure off a secondary levee built in recent weeks.
“There is risk behind any levee,'' Ruch said. “That is assumed.''
Monday's rupture, however, was not an indicator of what landowners and residents along the Missouri can expect in coming weeks when higher flows arrive, Ruch said.
Ruch said the levee break came as a surprise because the levee had handled higher water during flooding last year.
He said a hole created by a badger or gopher could have eroded the integrity of the earthen structure.
Still, Ruch said that earlier breaches upstream indicated that it would be prudent to build up the backup levee, a smaller structure created to protect Hamburg from an irrigation canal.
Ruch said he was optimistic that the backup levee would be elevated by contractors and National Guard troops before the floodwater has a chance to top the structure.
“We have excellent material and we have excellent working conditions,'' he said. “That levee is an excellent structure.''
If all goes as planned, the backup levee will be eight feet higher by Wednesday than it was a matter of weeks ago.
The corps also is helping raise low spots on a levee along the Nishnabotna River near Hamburg that ties into the big levee breached Monday.
“It's another threat to Hamburg,'' Ruch said.
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Video from the levee break
*Video from the air over the levee break near Hamburg*