ONLY IN THE WORLD-HERALD
Imagine roughly 55 million acres — the entire surface of Nebraska and southwest Iowa — covered in a foot of water.
Now imagine trying to funnel all that water down a drainage canal surrounded by airports and homes, businesses and farms.
You can begin to grasp the unprecedented, slow-developing danger facing folks from Montana to Missouri from the Great Flood of 2011.
In more than a century of record-keeping, the nation's longest river has never coped with more water.
Floodwaters are breaching levees, triggering evacuations, closing highways, swamping thousands of acres of farmland, destroying homes and lapping against hurriedly reinforced floodwalls protecting cities, airports and power plants, including two in Nebraska that produce nuclear power.
The damage bill will tally in the hundreds of millions.
As bad as it's been, the hardest parts are still ahead, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the river system's managers.
“It's going to be a devastating season in terms of how the levees do,” said Brig. Gen. John McMahon, commander of the corps' Northwestern Division. “There's going to be a lot of pain and suffering.”
Frustration and questions along the river are rising, too. Elected officials, including the governors of Nebraska and Iowa, have criticized or called for investigations of the management of the Missouri by the corps.
“I think when this is over there needs to be a complete review of how the whole Missouri River basin has been handled by the corps,'' said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
Last Sunday, leaders of the corps sat down with The World-Herald to explain their decisions and address public concerns.
They argued there was no way to predict the historically large late-May rainfall that drenched vast swaths of the semi-arid northern Plains and poured millions of acre-feet of water into the basin's reservoirs, filling space the corps says it had allocated for melting snow.
The corps manages six major dams on the main stem of the upper Missouri from Montana to Nebraska — home to the largest system of reservoirs in the United States. Garrison Dam in North Dakota, Oahe Dam in South Dakota and Fort Peck Dam in Montana are the nation's largest corps-operated dams.
Above Gavins Point, the Missouri River drains nearly 280,000 square miles from five states, a region bigger than Texas.
On June 23, the corps increased releases at Gavins Point to a record 160,000 cubic feet per second. At that rate, 1 million acre-feet passes through the dam's floodgates every three days.
The corps expects peak releases to extend well into August.
“This really is a historic flood,” said Jody Farhat, the corps' Omaha-based water management chief. “It's unprecedented in our history of the hydrologic records of the Missouri River basin.”
An astounding 195,000 cubic feet of water per second is expected to flow past Omaha today. Visualize the volume of water this way: Every second, 195,000 basketballs are cascading downstream.
Click here for a more detailed account of the question-and-answer session with the corps.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1127, firstname.lastname@example.org
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A flood chute constructed near the Qwest Center diverted storm water, which flooded several downtown streets on Saturday.
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View flooded streets in downtown Omaha due to heavy rains Saturday.
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Footage of storm water flowing out of Lot D near the Qwest Center onto North 10th Street on Saturday.