‘A surreal six weeks’: Recapping the 2011 flood

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KCAU) – The flooding of 2011 affected Siouxlanders up and down the Missouri River, eventually becoming the worst flooding event in 50 years.

It all started in May 2011 just days before the Missouri River swelled, splashing out of its banks.

“It was the 14, 15, 16 of May. It was raining a lot, and I was driving back from Yankton and noticed there was a lot of water in the field, and it jogged my mind a little bit,” said Dakota Dunes Improvement District Manager Jeff Dooley.

As Dooley looked across those soggy South Dakota fields, he had no way of knowing how high water would dominate his life during the summer of 2011.

“That next Monday, we had a board meeting, and there wasn’t anything on the agenda for flooding, but by that Thursday, I was seeing river levels and chatter about the snowpack, and we started game planning what we had to protect,” said Dooley.

By the end of May, the Army Corps of Engineers warned that because of record snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and heavier than expected spring rainfall, it would be releasing record amounts of water from six upstream dams, including Gavins Point Dam near Yankton.

Unaware that their efforts wouldn’t be enough to hold back the power of the Missouri River, homeowners began preparing for what would be a life-altering event.

Less than a week after the Corps predicted record river levels, South Dakota Governor Dennis Duagaard stood near the 18th Green at Dakota Dunes CC and urged residents of the neighborhood to evacuate. Nobody knew for how long. The work was just beginning.

“Our plan probably changed six times. Every day, the Corps would say they were going to 120, 130, 140. We had to keep upping the protection. By the time the Governor had gotten here with the
incident management team, it was continuing to change. Thankful they showed up with the resources they had, taking our resources to a new level. They did a great job.”

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The rush to protect property was on. Levies were being built by machine and by hand over eight days of nonstop work; sandbags were filled for homes and businesses, and plenty of heavy lifting was done over the next few weeks.

It became a community effort. Those in harm’s way and those high and dry were offering help however they could.

“That was one of those situations that you just didn’t know because it had never happened before. Nothing to compare it to. Just had to be as safe as possible,” said Dooley.

From Hamilton Boulevard to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and the Anderson Dance Pavilion, Sergent Floyd Museum, exits near downtown, and the Argosy Casino, everyday life was nowhere to be found.

The flood fight continued. Releases at Gavin’s Point eventually hit 160,000 cubic feet per second. The summer average is just 63,000. Then on July 21, 2011, there was a sign the worst might be over.

The Missouri River crests at 35.25 ft in Sioux City. The highest crest since 1952 when it hit more than 44 feet. A high water mark that still stands today.

“During that time frame, you watched the weather a lot. Even today, a rainstorm bothers me a little bit. Always keeping an eye on that,” added Dooley.

River levels continued to drop through July and August. The hard work continued as well as levies came down, sandbags were emptied, and basements were repaired from moisture and mold.

Attention turned to the Army Corps of Engineers, and many wondered if more could have been done to prevent the disaster.

Hundreds were displaced with $2 billion in damages to infrastructure homes and businesses as well as farmland.

“There was a surreal six weeks there from May to June, and after a while, you just got conditioned to it,” said Dooley.

He added, “I’m glad it went the way it did, but I don’t want to go back there again, I don’t think.”

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