Residents of Hamburg, Iowa, still reeling from March flooding, strive to keep town dry

Residents of Hamburg, Iowa, still reeling from March flooding, strive to keep town dry
A helicopter flies along a flooded Interstate 29 and a dike east of Hamburg, Iowa on Wednesday. I-29 is closed from Hwy. 24 to the Missouri border. (World-Herald News Service)

HAMBURG, Iowa — With grim determination, the Finnell family emptied more inventory from their downtown antique store Wednesday as the small Iowa town prepares for what could be Round 2 of flooding.

Several feet of water poured into the Main Street store during record flooding in March that left a portion of Hamburg underwater. Now, the rapidly rising Missouri River threatens the town again.

Large amounts of rain, saturated soil and runoff in the Missouri Basin are forcing higher releases of Missouri River water from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota.

Gavins Point releases went from 65,000 cubic feet per second on Tuesday to 70,000 on Wednesday. A jump to 75,000 is expected Saturday.

Discharges in a normal year are around 30,000.

The releases and the recent heavy rains in Nebraska and Iowa are expected to worsen the flooding problems in such downstream Iowa cities as Hamburg, Percival and Pacific Junction.

Wednesday, Glenn and Melanie Finnell and their son Dallas grabbed cuckoo clocks, glass jars and boxes full of other antique pieces, all of which are headed for higher ground.

“Angry. Depressed. Sad,” 24-year-old Dallas Finnell said, summing up his mood. “We’re not sure if this is going to take more stuff from us. We can only lose so much.”

Behind them, workers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were assembling a double-layer flood barrier across E Street to try to prevent the kind of flooding that already crippled the town once this year.

According to the Corps, one of the levees that protects Hamburg breached in seven places in mid-March. Repairs are ongoing, leaving the town increasingly vulnerable as rain continues to fall and the Missouri and Nishnabotna Rivers continue to swell.

This month alone, more than 10 inches of rain has fallen in the area, Fremont County Emergency Management officials said.

The barriers lining Main Street are meant to keep the north side of town dry, said Mike Crecelius, the county’s emergency management director. The Ditch 6 levee has been built up to protect the western and southern portions of town from floodwaters. Earthen berms were added to each end of the levee for added strength.

“Eleven local guys brought in their bulldozers and built the levee back up (Tuesday),” Crecelius said. “The Corps gave us elevation readings, and we added 3 feet all along the levee.

“I’m hoping what we’ve done will be enough, but it’s really out of our hands now,” he said. “It’s up to Mother Nature. It will depend on the river levels.”

Downtown Hamburg was a virtual ghost town Wednesday — only a handful of businesses have reopened since March. City water and sewer service was restored only a few weeks ago, and piles of flood wreckage — soggy insulation, couches and floorboards — remain heaped outside affected homes and businesses, waiting to be hauled away.

Three dozen mattresses are stacked outside the Hamburg Inn, and 5 inches of mud still coats the floor of some motel rooms. A pyramid of moldy corn sits outside a grain company on the outskirts of town.

All that debris will be floating if water rushes in again, said Hamburg City Councilman Wille Thorp.

Thorp estimated that about 400 Hamburg residents are displaced and living elsewhere, including the campground at nearby Waubonsie State Park. Prior to the March flood, the city’s population hovered around 1,000.

Wednesday morning, Thorp and Chipper Fyfe, a worker with GoServ Global, a faith-based nonprofit that has been helping residents muck out houses in Hamburg, checked on an earthen city dike east of Interstate 29 that stands 11 to 12 feet high. On the other side, water lapped against it, in some places only a foot or so from the top.

If “it comes in,” Thorp said, “we’ve lost people already who are moving away.”

Cleanup also is ongoing in Pacific Junction, which evacuated for nearly a month in March. Wednesday, contractors with St. Louis-based Environmental Restoration, LLC collected so-called “orphan tanks” — stranded oil tanks and hazardous material containers — from floodwaters outside the city via airboat.

The March flooding hit several buildings owned by the Finnells and ruined much of the family’s classic car collection. Volunteers seemed to focus on helping those with flooded homes, they said, leaving business owners to fend for themselves.

Crecelius said Hamburg also faces danger from the rising Nishnabotna River on the city’s east side.

“That’s another concern,” he said. “We’re not working there yet, but the road to Riverton was cut off (by the river) at 11 p.m. (Tuesday).”

Glenn Finnell, 78, lived through floods in 1952, 1993 and 2011, when Hamburg was largely spared.

“I’m not going back,” he said about reopening the antique business.

Finnell said he’d like to sell his buildings. “But I don’t know who would buy them.”

World-Herald staff writers Kevin Cole and Marjie Ducey contributed to this report.

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