Farmers race against time, as Missouri approaches

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June 13th, 2011

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Omaha, NE -The Missouri River has risen above 30 feet in northeast Nebraska. And it’s expected to rise to 34 feet this week, as the dams along the river continue to release more and more water at an increasingly rapid pace.

The flooding is impacting people all along the river’s bank – many are farmers who’ve lived on the land for generations. Today we’ll meet one family evacuating their farm and racing against time, as they watch everything they own slowly sink beneath the river.

Sandy Smith is evacuating her parents from their farm near Fort Calhoun, as the Missouri River encroaches. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“If you can see down there, we have 35 acres down there, that I would say are probably seven, eight foot deep now,” said Sandy Smith, as she surveyed her family’s farm land, which lies along Highway 75 near Fort Calhoun in northeast Nebraska. “This is just such high ground, I just absolutely cannot believe it’s coming up here.”

A gravel road that bends along the edge of the property is sinking under water, as the rising Missouri River creeps closer and closer to her home. “Every day we come back here, it’s worse.”

Smith said her grandfather bought the land in the 1950s, and it’s been run by her father for the last few decades. Today, her father is in his eighties.

The Missouri River had, by June 9, almost entirely swallowed up a road that runs along the edge of the Smith's property. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“This is a several hundred thousand dollar loss for us,” she said. “It’s just very sad. We’ve all been so stressed out. My dad’s 81 years old, he’s absolutely exhausted. My mom’s been in the hospital and told to be on bed rest. It’s just been exhausting.”

Smith said her parents have bought a new home in town. It has a tiny yard, she said, and she has no idea where she’s going to fit all the furniture and farming equipment the family has gathered over generations.

“At this point, we’re just grabbing what we can and getting it out of here. We don’t know when they’ll close the highway, or when they’ll shut our electricity off. So we’re just working on borrowed time at this point.”

A crick that runs through the Smith property is rising to historic levels, flooding flowers and vegetables the Smiths had planted. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Like many of her neighbors along the river, Smith said her family does not have flood insurance. Asked why not, Smith said, it’s expensive, and the protection isn’t a guarantee. “Actually it’s something we never thought we would need. Or we would have had it,” she laughed.

Tucked between the Omaha Public Power District’s Nuclear Power Plant, her neighbors to the north, and the Fort Calhoun Quarry to the south, Smith says she once believed her land was safe.

“We thought being next to OPPD and Cargill, the Corps of Engineers would never release an amount of water that would actually put them at risk.”

In fact, mention the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the riverbank, Smith said, and you won’t find any sympathizers. Smith blames the Corps for releasing the water from the dams upstream too late, and said farmers weren’t notified as early as they could’ve been.

“I don’t think they notify in time. And I think it’s poorly managed. So do a lot of other people, and there will be suits filed against them.” (See Army Corps response below)

But the lawsuit will have to wait, Smith said. For now, she’s just trying to save what she can, in the time she has left. Smith said the Corps estimates her family’s property will be under two feet of water in the next few days. But, she said, it’s almost impossible to predict just how far the river will spread.

The Smith home near Fort Calhoun is estimated to be under two feet of water this week, and will likely remain that way through the end of the summer. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“We don’t how deep we’ll be under water. We’re estimating anywhere from two to four feet of standing water, which will ruin three generations of work.”

“In my parent’s golden years, this is how it ends,” she said. “It’s just overwhelming.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded to Smith’s story in a late Friday interview with KVNO News. Tom O’Hara, with the Missouri River Joint Information Center, said the Army Corps has been proactive about protecting human life and property from flood damage since the end of last year. The Army Corps is dealing with an “unprecedented” amount of water, he said, and “not one drop” from the river has been used for anything other than flood protection.

In response to the question of a potential lawsuit against the Army Corps, O’Hara said that’s not the focus right now, and any answer to that will have to be determined down the road.

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