Residents frustrated over failure to build new levee at risk from rising Des Moines River

By Melanie S. Welte, AP
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Frustration over threatened Des Moines levee grows

DES MOINES, Iowa — Residents of a small Des Moines neighborhood are frustrated that their homes may be inundated by floodwaters again, 17 years after discussions first began on building a new levee to protect the area.

A levee that already exists failed in 1993 and again in 2008, causing some 135 homes and businesses to be engulfed by the Des Moines River. Locals have voiced concern that the slow pace of efforts to build a new barricade could irrevocably damage the community, driving residents and investment away.

“I’m very, very upset,” said Andrew Krantz of Eagle Iron Works. “They want industry here. They want business, they want people here. How do you build this? This is not the way.”

Bill Heinold, a flood risk management coordinator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said it took five years to win congressional approval of a Corps feasibility study for the new levee. That authorization for construction didn’t land until 2007, and it took another two years for the funding to be approved.

He said he understood why residents in the 200-home neighborhood were annoyed.

“I would be too if I were them,” he said. “I wish it were faster. If I had the power to make it faster, I would.”

When the levee failed in June 2008, it allowed flood waters to pour into the working-class neighborhood. Residents were ordered to grab what they could leave immediately as city crews and the National Guard built a berm of dirt and sandbags that also gave way under the pressure of the rushing water.

For resident Larry Clark, the delays are inexcusable.

“There is quite a bit of frustration,” Clark said Wednesday. “It takes 17 years to fix a levee? C’mon.”

Construction of the levee had been slated to start in June but was delayed because of weeks of torrential rain.

“We recommended that the contractor not start that construction, of course, because for him to punch a hole in the levee right now and start reconstructing it … that would be suicide,” Heinold said.

He said construction would have to wait until the river retreated — anytime from mid-July to August.

The Des Moines River was already swollen with snowmelt when rain began to fall this month. Saylorville Lake, north of Des Moines, is designed to protect the city from flooding, but it’s close to its maximum storage.

The city was monitoring the river and levees on Wednesday. Although the river was expected to stay within the levee system, officials acknowledged that the levee protecting the working-class Birdland neighborhood is more vulnerable than other parts of the levee system.

The Des Moines River near the Birdland neighborhood is expected to crest Thursday evening at 27.4 feet, more than four feet about flood stage, according to the Army Corps of Engineers’ river gauge website.

The record crested at 31.7 feet during the flood of 1993. In 2008, the river reached 31.6 feet.

Sunny and dry weather this week has provided some relief, and prompted the Corps to delay a planned release of water over a spillway at Saylorville Lake into the Des Moines River, which flows through the city’s downtown.

The level of the lake has almost reached the top of an inflatable dam that was installed as a temporary fix to the rapidly rising waters. Heinold said that dam would be lowered Thursday morning rather than late Wednesday, allowing the slow release of lake overflow into the river.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, some 37,000 cubic feet of water will be released per second — the equivalent of 55,000 people pouring out five gallons of water every second.

Authorities have not ordered residents to evacuate their homes, yet some have packed up and headed to higher ground in recent days.

Clark said he planned to stay.

“I’m going to stay here until they make me leave and protect what we’ve got here,” he said.

Associated Press Writer Luke Meredith contributed to this report.


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