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WOSTER: An incredible effort, an incredible flood

Last weekend as Nancy and I walked on a bike trail that meanders along the Missouri River shore here in Pierre, I idly noted the gray-white markings on the trunks of trees in the parks where we strolled.

The markings, of course, are left from the great flood of 2011. Hard to imagine it has been three years since the water stood two, three and four feet high on the trunks of the cottonwood trees. Hard to imagine the path where we walked was covered by flood waters. Hard to imagine a hastily built but stubborn and unyielding levee once ran from the river bridges through the parks and neighborhoods of my town to the far southeastern end of the community -- a levee mirrored on the Fort Pierre side by another structure thrown together hastily but with utmost care.

On this date in 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was still increasing release rates from Oahe Dam and had nearly hit the 150,000 cubic feet per second flow rate that would continue through much of the summer. For comparison, yesterday morning the Corps' daily river bulletin said releases from Oahe were about 25,000 cubic feet per second, an infant's crawl compared to the thundering rush of water at the height of the flooding.

(For context, one cubic foot of water equals 7.5 gallons.)

Yesterday, the lake level above Oahe Dam was just about 1,608 feet above sea level. On June 7 in 2011, the lake stood at 1,619.2 feet above sea level, nine or 10 inches below the lip of the emergency spillway. Upstream, the level of the lake behind Garrison Dam was a few inches from spilling over the emergency spillway, and the lake behind Fort Peck in Montana was just above full. Water, from the still-melting snow in the Rockies and the heavy rains along the upper river basin, was pouring into the system at a furious pace.

I worked in the state's Emergency Operations Center for the first month of the flooding. It was the third weekend, I think, before I got a day off. We walked the town that morning.

I'd not been around the town at all from the time the flood hit until then. In the mornings when I got up, I'd report to the EOC. In the evening, long after dark, I'd go home.

Nancy described the hectic sandbagging, the uncertainty and fear in the community, the neighbors and strangers working together to protect property and move belongings and share comfort and concern as they could. On my first day off, we walked the streets of the city near the levees, and I began to see for myself how enormous the flooding was and how incredible the effort to protect the community had been and continued to be.

We made it a practice on every free morning to walk through the town down to the river bridges. The levees became part of the scenery for a while. We'd look to see if any sandbags had torn or if the fabric had split. We'd take the walking path onto the river bridge and out to the middle to study the channel, trying to tell if the water was an inch lower or a few cubic feet per second slower than the last time we visited.

Sometimes, it seemed we'd never again see the park or the bike path or the causeway that connected the shore to LaFramboise Island.

The river being the river, though, the flows slowed and the water level fell, inch by inch, day by day. One day, the river was back in its bank, and the levees began to be removed.

In the past three years, many people have worked to recover and rebuild. I have watched the recovery process with admiration. I recall the long, slow, arduous work required in 1972 and for years afterward to bring Rapid City back from its flood. Monday marks the 42nd anniversary of that flood, in which 238 lives were lost overnight.

The Missouri River flood took many things, but it didn't take lives. For that, I continue to be thankful.