FREMONT COUNTY, Iowa — Driving on Iowa Highway 2 toward the bridge to Nebraska City, it's hard not to see the construction equipment on either side of the highway.
Tractors pull scrapers, moving like ants in every direction.
Soon the bulk of the earthwork on a new portion of the levee here will be complete, with only finishing touches left.
“We've basically had our levee system updated by 60 years,” said Pat Sheldon, chairman of the Benton-Washington Levee District, the local administrator of the levee known as L-575, which protects much of Fremont County from the Missouri River.
Repairs and changes to the Missouri River levees continue, though nearing completion, a year and a half after those levees were damaged by the historic floods of 2011.
Some of that work will not be completed until next summer, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The estimated cost to fix the levees between Omaha and Rulo, in far southeast Nebraska, is $209 million, said Eileen Williamson, a corps spokeswoman. The estimated cost for the L-575 levee alone is $100 million. The vast majority of the work is federally funded.
The modifications mean a more modern and better-designed system — one that should better protect residents if the events of 2011 are ever repeated.
L-575 was built by the corps but is administered locally. The levee breached north of the town of Percival early in the morning of June 30, 2011, sending water pouring into town later that day.
Sheldon said the levee was well built. It withstood months of water before it finally succumbed.
“The old levees did way better than what they were designed to do,” he said. “The water was against them for 2½ months before the breach.”
The problem northwest of Percival, he said, was a flaw in the layout. The levee actually bent toward the river there, creating a pinch point where, after flooding started, the onrushing water pushed against the levee more violently than elsewhere, eventually causing it to break.
Today, the breach site still holds a small pond of water. Maybe 1,000 feet farther from the river sits the new levee, about 10 feet tall and 20 feet wide on top, with broad, sloping sides. It runs parallel to the Missouri, reducing the pinch point that led to the breach.
“It's a nice, gentle flow around the river,” Sheldon said, standing on the newly built levee overlooking the old breach.
Original portions of the levee remain. They are the same height as the new levee but have steeper slopes and are not as wide on top.
Closer to Nebraska City, a newly built portion of the levee swings away from the river.
The old stretch of the levee here was severely damaged during the floods, mostly because it was near a narrow, faster-moving point of the river.
The river is about 830 feet wide at that point, and the old levee was only about 285 feet away from the Missouri. That constricted the flooded river, causing the water to flow faster and erode the levee more.
The new levee is set back from the river about 2,400 feet on the Iowa side of the river at Nebraska City. This means if the region sees another catastrophe like the 2011 floods, the swollen river will flow by here at a lower rate of speed, eroding the levee less and making it less likely to breach.
Almost all of the corps-sponsored levees between Omaha and Rulo have some work remaining. But all are capable of providing flood protection if needed, said Eileen Williamson, a corps spokeswoman.
For example, Missouri River Levee Unit R-616, which protects Offutt Air Force Base and part of Bellevue in Nebraska, is fully functional, but seepage berms are being extended to shore it up. The work should be done by March 1, the beginning of spring runoff, according to the corps.
None of the Missouri River levees in Nebraska and Iowa north of Omaha are controlled by the corps. Most are locally built and supervised. Much public infrastructure, such as the Sioux City, Iowa, airport, does not have levee protection.
Some local levee projects needed repairs, too. Gary Collison, superintendent of a drainage district in Woodbury, Monona and Harrison Counties, north of Omaha, said his district repaired levees along a waterway that flows into the Missouri.
The levees collapsed after the river receded because they were sodden with water backed up from the Missouri, he said.
“When the water went down, it took the levee down with it,” Collison said.
The district finished the repairs in September, at a cost of about $145,000, though the Federal Emergency Management Agency kicked in about half the funds, Collison said.
Back in Fremont County, Sheldon said the newly modified levee system should make it easier for people like him to return to their homes or rebuild. Sheldon is a farmer, and his home, located a short distance from where the levee breached, was damaged beyond repair.
He eventually plans to rebuild and return.
“I'm not worrying about it happening again. … Not like that,” he said. “We can't afford to let it happen again.”
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