May 22 in 2011 fell on a Sunday, and while I didn’t know it then, it would be the last relatively normal day for a long time for me and many other South Dakotans.
For me, that was because the next day as I worked at my public information job with the Department of Public Safety, the director of the Office of Emergency Management called. Emergency Management was one of the agencies for which I provided information services. The director said a group of state, local and federal people would meet the next day with officials from the Corps of Engineers.
“The Corps has information to share about upcoming water flows and reservoir levels on the Missouri River,’’ the director said.
Well, it was my job to be at the meeting, so sure. Besides, I’d been a student of river flows and reservoir elevations for 40 years. I wanted to hear anything the Corps had to say on those topics. What they had to say, in a nutshell, was that the reservoirs on the upper Missouri River were full or nearly so, that runoff from an unusually heavy snowpack in the Rocky Mountains was just hitting the river system and that 10 or 12 inches of recent rainfall across a wide swath of Montana was adding to what was shaping up to be a record year of runoff.
Like many others at the meeting, I was stunned. Worse yet, the Corps couldn’t tell us right then how bad it would get.
Storage in the reservoirs is measured in acre feet – millions of acre feet, actually. An acre foot is the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land to a depth of 12 inches. Levels of the reservoirs are listed in feet above sea level, and I knew that for Oahe Dam north of Pierre, a level of 1,620 feet above sea level meant full. Beyond that, the flowing water would run over the emergency spillway. Discharges from the dams are measured in cubic feet per second. I was familiar with normal Oahe discharges in the range of 18,000 cfs to 30,000 cfs. I quickly learned, in what is called the Missouri River Flood of 2011, that a discharge rate of 85,000 cfs from Oahe Dam was just about the flow rate that would fill the river full from bank to bank in the Pierre and Fort Pierre area.
I don’t recall all of the decisions at that Tuesday meeting. I remember being asked to write a public information release explaining what we knew and what was being done. The release was necessarily vague, but I put into it as much information as I could get. And I remember the people in charge decided to open, effective the next day — Wednesday, May 25 — the state’s Emergency Operations Center and to staff it with workers from a bunch of state agencies, along with FEMA and the National Guard and the Red Cross and city officials.
I’d been in EOC activations before, for blizzards, ice storms, tornadoes and lake and stream flooding during spring melts. But this one lasted a full month. Even when the EOC officially closed late in June, we dealt with flood response and recovery for the rest of that year and much of the next.
People along the river were frightened and confused. Projected discharge rate changed almost daily, rising to as much as 150,000 cfs, a previously unthinkable number. Responders, many of whom had no previous experience with a levee system, built protective berms in an amazingly short amount of time. We opened the EOC on a Wednesday, as I said. By Friday plans had been completed for levees in the Pierre-Fort Pierre area and downstream near Dakota Dunes. Contracts were signed just before midnight that Friday. Work began immediately and feverishly.
Property was lost and damaged, but much more was protected. Lives were protected. I remember how much government did to help people, and I witnessed how much people did to help each other. The flood was an awful thing, but the response was remarkable.
Working together, we can do much good for each other.