HAMBURG, Iowa — Ruth Hayes is ready. Like many others in this flood-menaced town, the 77-year-old's car is packed with the essentials of life in case a levee on Hamburg's edge breaks.
She figures she will have plenty of time to get to safety before the Missouri River swamps a big chunk of town.
“I have clothes and a little bit of everything. Cookbooks and pans — the things I think the most of,” said Hayes, who works at a downtown soda fountain that is doggedly staying open this summer.
Hamburg and its 1,200 residents have lived with flood fears for more than three weeks after a levee breach along the Missouri River threatened their community. An emergency levee quickly built on the west side of town is all that separates half of Hamburg from several feet of water.
The question now is whether the levee will hold for two months or more, especially because a second levee breach along the Missouri is sending an additional three feet of water toward the town.
Hamburg is braced for a long, tense summer.
The town, however, is far from deserted. Many homes on the east side are not threatened by the flood, and many of the town's businesses remain open, though signs of the flood are visible up and down Main Street.
A big question in Hamburg appears to be “to sandbag or not to sandbag.” Some businesses have piled bags around their foundations, while others have decided that if the flood comes, the bags will do little good.
One business, the Blue Moon Bar and Grill, has built a levee that encircles the restaurant. There is a small opening at the front, set to quickly be filled in the event of a breach.
Darin Hendrickson is keeping his trucking company open. Hendrickson Enterprises and its 40 employees toil within view of the town's levee. He has two semitrailer trucks filled with office paperwork and equipment and, if a levee shows signs of stress, the trucks will roll.
Hendrickson realizes he is taking a chance, especially if a breach occurs without warning. But it's a chance he's willing to take. He figures he would lose about 50 percent of his revenue if he relocated for the summer.
“It makes for some restless nights, but I think we stand a pretty good chance. I think we're in the 85th percentile we're going to survive this,” Hendrickson said.
The town and some of its people are showing signs of stress, especially those who have been forced to leave their homes. Many are living with relatives and friends, and many are living out of boxes.
There are no jokes or smiles when they talk about the flood.
Evelyn Frum, a waitress at the Blue Moon Bar and Grill, said the “emotional stuff is a big drain on everybody.”
And, she said, everyone is a little tense. “It takes a lot less for people to get in an argument,” Frum said.
Uncertainty is one of the big stressors. No one knows when they wake up whether today will be the day their home is lost.
“It's the pits,” said Vicky Purtle, 53.
Purtle and about 100 other people who live in the southern part of town are forbidden from sleeping in their homes. They can visit during the day, but they can't stay. The city has turned off the electricity there, and the evacuation is enforced.
Purtle and her husband fled their home several weeks ago. They slept one night in their pickup and several nights in a camper before they found a house to rent in Hamburg. That house, too, would be flooded by a breach, but at least it has electricity, Purtle said.
Now, she returns daily to her home, to mow the lawn and hang out clothes. It's comforting, even though the home is empty. “There is no place like home. You don't feel comfortable imposing on someone else,” she said.
In addition to the stress, many people in Hamburg are just plain mad.
They blame the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the flood. Several put forward the idea one morning that environmentalists within the federal agency are intent upon returning the river to its original flood plain — before the dams upstream were built — to protect the river's fish and wildlife.
They don't buy the corps' argument that heavy rains and heavy snowfall in Montana and the Dakotas are responsible for the flood.
When the flooding is over, Vicki Sjulin plans to push for a grassroots investigation into the corps and how it managed the flood. “We're angry, and we're damn well ready to get things changed,” Sjulin said.
The other fact fueling the tension in Hamburg is the knowledge that there is no real end in sight. The Missouri River is expected to remain above flood stage for two to three more months — if not longer.
“It's going to be a long, awful summer,” Hayes said as she served up a chocolate malt at the drugstore soda fountain. “We're not going to get to enjoy the summer.”
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