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Iowa Residents Hope New Levee Will Save Hamburg

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In southwest Iowa, crews have been working to save a tiny town from the rising Missouri River. Hamburg, Iowa, is of particular concern, following the breach of a nearby levee. Crews are building up another earthen levee just outside of town.


In Iowa, crews have been working through the night, racing against the clock to save a tiny town along the rising Missouri River. Communities in several states are being threatened by heavy rains and melting snow that have swelled the river this year. Hamburg, Iowa is of particular concern this week, following the breach of a nearby levee. And now officials are working to build up a second earthen levee just outside of town. From Hamburg, Iowa Public Radio's Sarah McCammon reports.

SARAH MCCAMMON: Dave Ray's voice is hoarse. Yours would be too if you'd been shouting over noisy earth-moving equipment at sites all along the Missouri River all month. Ray is a geotechnical engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha. He says crews have been racing to build up the earthen levee.

Mr. DAVE RAY (Army Corps of Engineers): They're raising it up another three feet from the original design. And they've got good clean material close to the site, so that cuts down on haul distance and time. And he's working 24 hours to raise the thing up.

MCCAMMON: So I'm on the western side of Hamburg, about a quarter mile or so maybe west of town, surrounded by kind of a soybean field, looks like, and a lot of earth movers, just moving dirt, kind of digging up this field and turning it in - the dirt into a wall that hopefully will hold back the floodwaters.

Mr. RAY: So we've got every confidence that we'll get ahead of it enough to stop the water from coming into Hamburg and flooding the area. So...

MCCAMMON: How confident are you that this flooding will hold?

Mr. RAY: Real confident. They're placing it as well as we can with the equipment and time we have.

MCCAMMON: Melting snowpack in the Rocky Mountains way above normal has prompted the Corps to release water from upstream reservoirs. And that's causing flooding headaches downstream, in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. Recent heavy rains in Montana and North Dakota aren't helping either. Throw in this levee breach, and the town of Hamburg could be in trouble.

Twenty-two-year-old Nathan Beach drove here from Lincoln, Nebraska, where he's attending college. He came to see the town for what he fears will be the last time. Beach has lots of memories traveling here from his childhood home in eastern Iowa.

Mr. NATHAN BEACH: I'm here to visit Hamburg because I think it might be flooding soon and I want to see the place where I came here as a child. My grandparents used to live here. My grandfather used to have a watch shop here. So I want to visit the town, see where their house used to be, and maybe see it before it all got inundated.

MCCAMMON: The town is mostly quiet now. At least half of its 1,200 or so residents have already left. But down the road at the elementary school, volunteers are chipping away at a mountain of sand in the parking lot, filling burlap bags one shovelful at a time.

Tyler Woodward says many of those who remain say their homes are safe, but they want to do something to help their neighbors.

Mr. TYLER WOODWARD: We live up on the hill, so we're fine there. We evacuated our business down there on the bottom. Most farmers moved out all their equipment and stuff out of their shops. And now all the homes are evacuated down there. Behind the levee and the south end of town is evacuated pretty much too, so...

MCCAMMON: It's not clear how long this town will stay largely empty. Predictions are that Missouri River levels will remain unusually high well into August.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon, in Hamburg, Iowa.

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