Memorial Day weekend has always served as an opportunity for my family to reflect on the military service of those in my family and those I personally served with. The day is special for us because it has always offered us an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices that other brave Americans have made for our great country. Memorial Day weekend has also taken on a new meaning for many of us that live up and down the Missouri River. Last year at this time my family along with hundreds of our neighbors, National Guardsmen, emergency management personnel, and literally thousands of strangers, were pitching in to save homes, neighborhoods and communities up and down the Mighty Mo from the worst flooding our region has seen since 1881.
Today, the communities affected by the record level flooding are stronger, more resilient and united in fixing the problems that led to the flooding in the first place. Many of the homes, businesses and farm ground that were affected by the flooding were not only outside of the 100-year floodplain - they were outside of the 500-year floodplain. But make no mistake about it, what we saw last year was not a once in a 500-year Act of God: it was amazingly poor management of a carefully constructed system designed to prevent this kind of flooding.
From the early 1900s to the 1950s dams were constructed on the Missouri River as a method to add millions of acres of farmland in the Missouri River basin. For decades, the plan worked, aiding farmers, as well as residents. The Corps of Engineers, charged with controlling and maintaining this set of dams, allowed the water stored in the dams to build from a historic low point several years ago to a level so high in 2011, the dams were unable to compensate for an extreme weather event caused by heavy precipitation in the mountains of Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota. With water so high, the Corps then had no choice but to release record high flows from the dam in order to avoid compromising the structural integrity of the dams. Before May of 2011, the highest outflow from the Gavin's Point Dam was 70,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). During the height of the 2011 flooding, the outflow of water reached and remained at an unprecedented 160,000 cfs. It more than doubled the amount of water barreling down the river.
What we've learned in the last year is that the record-level outflows could have been managed better, more evenly and doing so would have mitigated the disastrous effects the flooding had on the tri-state area. Information gathered as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Officials (USACE) were aware of the record high levels early on in 2011. Highly redacted emails between White House officials USACE Civilian Leadership and FEMA officials reveal that during the month of April the USACE was completely focused on developing talking points and coordinating a public relations campaign plan rather than evening out the outflows. In one email, a USACE official shied away from alerting Jo Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works and the top civilian leader, to the magnitude of the problem because she was on a canoe trip.
Meanwhile, thanks to the efforts of local and state officials, progress is being made towards preventing another catastrophe from happening again. Congressman Steve King has sponsored a bill that would require the USACE to recalculate the total amount of flood control storage space within the Missouri River Reservoir System so that it is sufficient to control the record runoff experienced last year. The bill would ensure that there is adequate space in the reservoirs to prevent serious downstream flooding and balance the myriad of interests involved with river management.
On this Memorial Day, I will salute my fallen comrades who have bravely worn the uniform of this great country - and I will also reflect on my neighborhood's response to the flooding. People from all walks of life volunteered to help friends, acquaintances, and strangers evacuate from their homes, pack sandbags, and protect their homes. Levees were built with almost superhuman speed. Countless volunteers pitched in, and to them the affected are immensely grateful.