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HAMBURG, Iowa — A year ago this month, the people of Hamburg were lining downtown buildings with sandbags, hurriedly preparing for the worst after levee breaks along the Missouri River sent water surging toward town.
On Friday afternoon, Hamburg's Main Street was largely quiet. But a half block east, on the loading dock at the Hamburg Post Office, about 35 people rehearsed dance moves to the Ike and Tina Turner version of “Proud Mary,” with lyrics tailored to raise money for the formerly flood-threatened town.
“...Big Mo keeps on churnin'
Flood threats continue we're learnin'
Levee, levee, save us from the river ...”
It's for a good cause. The City of Hamburg wants to preserve the two-mile-long inner levee that didn't breach, one thrown up a year ago to keep floodwaters out of this town of about 1,200 people. They need to raise millions, so they'll dance.
Fremont County officials have estimated that the southern half of town would have seen 2 to 3 feet of water if not for the levee. That part of Hamburg is home to about 30 families and several businesses vital to the local economy.
“Those businesses can't go through it again,” said Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain. “They need protection — permanent protection.”
Much of the inner levee already existed when flooding began. But when floodwaters threatened last year, volunteers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers piled 8 feet of dirt on top, raising the levee to about 19 feet.
It held. South Hamburg stayed mostly dry for four months as the levee held back water that, at times, came within 2½ feet of topping it, Crain said.
To keep the levee taller than its pre-flood height, a number of federal requirements must be met, including drill borings and tests for density, stability and compaction. Also, 3 feet must be lopped off the top, which still would give the town roughly 16 feet of protection.
“We would like to just keep it as is,” Crain said, “but we have to follow the federal requirements.”
The cost of meeting those requirements comes to about $5.6 million, Crain said. The state of Iowa has kicked in $1 million. But $4.6 million is a tall task for a small town.
Hence, the video. The plan is to record the townspeople dancing to “Proud Mary” on Main Street and put the video on the Internet, asking people to donate.
Crain describes what they'll show as a “flash mob,” which typically involves large groups of people who show up at public places to dance unexpectedly.
This dance is set for 11:30 a.m. Monday on Main Street. Anyone is invited.
The logic is this: If 1.5 million people donate $3 — which, Crain points out, is the price of a latte — the expanded levee can be saved.
If not, it must be reduced to its pre-flood height, which still would cost the city a portion of an estimated $1.3 million tab.
Over at the post office, a practice crowd that ranged from elementary schoolkids to elderly shook posteriors, grasped at the air and otherwise danced under the direction of Teri Emberton, 58, a local music teacher. Danielle Smith Neujahr, 22, a 2008 Hamburg High graduate, sang the vocals.
“If you make your way to Hamburg
You are gonna find people wanting to live
You can stop this worry, if you give some money
People here in Hamburg are so happy you give.”
“We don't want them tearing that levee down or any part of it. It held for five or six months, and we think it's good enough. We want to keep it,” said Jonny Beam, 67, of Hamburg, who performed in a white hard hat and yellow reflective vest.
Hamburg native Suki Fischer, 38, of Auburn, Neb., drove up for the rehearsal.
“I think it's something that everybody needs to support to help our town,” Fischer said. “Everybody knows everybody here; they know you by your name and you are never forgotten.”
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