Woster: The united struggle against the May 2011 flood
Everyone was trying to help everyone else. It actually was one of those times when we were all in it together.
Since 2011, when I think of my wedding anniversary, I remember the Missouri River flooding.
Nancy and I married on June 3, 1967. That’s a Friday this year, as it was in 2011. Time was, my anniversary brought memories of a hot, windy South Dakota morning, a lovely bride and the prospect of a shared future.
The flooding, which started in late May of 2011 and continued into the fall, became an indelible anniversary memory. On June 3 that year, a levee system had been finished between Pierre and Fort Pierre and the gates at Oahe Dam really cranked open. Water flowed downstream at a rate not seen since before the dams were created, if even then. It isn’t a typical memory for a wedding anniversary, but there it is.
The flood story began for me on a Monday afternoon when I took a call in the cubicle where I worked as an information officer for the state Department of Public Safety. The emergency management director asked if I could be at a meeting first thing the next morning, which would have been May 24, to talk about possible Missouri River flooding. She had been talking all afternoon with the Army Corps of Engineers. The big reservoirs on the upper Missouri were nearly full and a massive amount of rain water was running into them from torrential rains across Montana’s plains.
At the Tuesday meeting, the Corps told state and local officials that they had to begin record releases immediately, and people along the river downstream from the dams should prepare for possible flooding. Gov. Dennis Daugaard activated the Emergency Operations Center, effective at noon May 25.
The 25th was a Wednesday. Almost immediately, state and Corps specialists began planning for a system of levees along both sides of the river in the area between Pierre and Fort Pierre. Plans also started on a levee system for the Dakota Dunes just above Sioux City. Since the rising waters wouldn’t reach that stretch of river for a few days after they impacted the Pierre area, the Pierre-Fort Pierre levee system had the most immediate urgency.
I said the levee planning began on Wednesday, right? Thursday night, shortly before midnight, I’d just gotten home from the EOC when I got a call. A contract had been completed for a levee system, and work was already underway. I got the call because it was my job to get that information onto the state’s news distribution system. A week later, late on the evening of June 2, the levee was finished.
The Corps had been increasing release levels all the while the levee contract was being negotiated and construction on the levee was in progress. In my 50 or so years in Pierre, releases tended to range anywhere from 15,000 cubic feet per second to 30,000 or so. In the days just before the levee was finished, releases were somewhere in the 80,000-90,000 cfs level. That put the rushing water right at the top of the banks in the stretch just below the dam. As soon as the levee was in place, releases jumped. Over a few days the releases went to 150,000 cfs. They stayed that way through the long summer of 2011.
That’s a tremendous amount of water. People would drive up near the dam just to see how the river raged. The roar of the water assaulted the ears, and the power of its flow could be felt in the vibrations of the ground. I’d never experienced anything quite like it. I hope I never do again.
Needless to say, Nancy and I did little celebrating that anniversary. I imagine I spent 15 or 16 hours in the EOC. I didn’t complain. Everyone was working long hours.
Nancy had been using my pickup for several days to help friends haul sandbags to build protection for their homes. She didn’t complain. Everyone was trying to help everyone else. It actually was one of those times when we were all in it together.
And that fact, the united struggle against a common foe, may be the best memory from the anniversary we (barely) observed 11 years ago.