HAMBURG, Iowa — With Missouri River floodwaters creeping toward his town's last line of defense, Hamburg Fire Chief Dan Sturm joked that now might be a good time to take some days off.
“We've done everything we can and the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers is about finished doing everything they can — so now we are just going to wait,” said Sturm, who doubles as the Hamburg emergency director. “Maybe I'll go on vacation.”
For the past week, the Corps of Engineers and local officials have worked night and day to build up the smaller Ditch 6 Levee on the south and west sides of the town of 1,200.
That 3-mile-long ditch levee originally was built by local officials to keep drainage water out of Hamburg. It became a priority for the town's defenses when the main federal levee along the Missouri River first breached on June 5.
That main levee failed completely on Monday, and river water now is pouring through at least a 100-yard break.
Ditch No. 6 is the primary drainage channel for nearly 38,000 acres of land that lies between the high Loess Hills on the east of Hamburg and Interstate 29 on the west. The channel runs from Thurman, Iowa, south past Hamburg to the federal levee.
“I'm optimistic that this (temporary) levee will hold the water out of town, but there are no guarantees and we won't know for sure for a few weeks,” Sturm said. “The water is going to be knocking on our door all summer.”
Mike Crecelius, emergency management director for Fremont County, said the water from the breached Missouri River levee has traveled nearly five miles to reach an area just south of Hamburg. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had crossed Iowa Highway 333 near town and was filling Ditch 6.
Alhough the main levee breach occurred downstream, the floodwaters were flowing north toward Hamburg because the town sits in a valley. Officials compared the valley to a slowly filling bathtub.
The water was expected to reach a portion of the temporary levee Thursday, said Col. Robert Ruch, corps district commander. By Friday, water is expected to be within 3 feet of the top of the levee.
Crecelius, too, said he believes the temporary levee — now raised to a height of about 8 feet — can keep Hamburg dry. He said crews Wednesday night would wrap the outer wall in plastic to thwart erosion by wind and waves.
Ruch said workers have used about 2,600 roles of plastic and distributed 44 pumps to reduce the impact of further flooding.
If the temporary levee fails, the southern portion of Hamburg could be covered by as much as 10 feet of water within days, officials have said.
Crecelius said about 300 of the town's residents have moved out. Only seven of the 40 households in the southern part of Hamburg have not been evacuated. The remaining residents are poised to escape quickly if water floods the town, he said.
The river has been rising steadily for weeks as the Corps of Engineers increased the amount of water being dumped from dams upstream to clear out heavy spring rain and snowmelt.
The flooding closed a nearly 30-mile stretch of Interstate 29 on Wednesday afternoon. The closure extended from Iowa Highway 2 north of Hamburg to the U.S. 136 interchange near Rock Port, Mo.
Officials from the corps and the Iowa National Guard toured the area by helicopter, and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was headed to Hamburg on Wednesday evening.
The town looked nearly deserted, with most of the stores on Main Street closed. On a dusty side street, a driver's education car rolled quietly along with an attentive young man behind the wheel and an instructor giving directions.
At the Blue Moon Bar — the town's main rumor mill — corps workers gobbled giant cheeseburgers or the liver and onions special for lunch as they hedged the question of the hour: Will the levee hold?
Vicki Sjulin, who owns the Blue Moon, said she is senses a quiet confidence from the workers and local officials that the levee will hold.
Sjulin, whose family has owned the bar since 1972, is worried that at least “a couple hundred” residents and several businesses won't be coming back.
“Some of these people got through the flood of 1993 and this is just the end for them,” Sjulin said. “A lot of folks have told me they are tired of this and they are not going to return. They are finding places to live in Nebraska City and Sidney (Iowa).”
In 1993, floodwaters backed up behind levees along the Missouri and Nishnabotna Rivers and into southern parts of town, causing approximately 250 residents to evacuate. The murky water sat for weeks.
In 1996, the Nishnabotna River was the villain, cresting at 21.3 feet, more than 3 feet above flood stage. Nearly 800 residents evacuated for three days.
Sturm, the fire chief, said Hamburg already would be under water again if not for several local farmers who jumped in to close the main levee breach on June 8, after the Corps of Engineers declared the ground unsafe and retreated to town.
“A couple of farmers took it upon themselves to pull in some more heavy equipment,” Sturm says. “They brought in more dirt and heavy rock, and they bought the time to build up this (temporary) levee.”
World-Herald staff writer Emily Nohr contributed to this report.
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