Hamburg waits and watches, as waters rise

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June 14th, 2011

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Omaha, NE – It was quiet and somber in Hamburg on Tuesday, as the city watches and waits to see if the rising Missouri waters reach their town.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is rapidly building a 1.5 mile levee near Hamburg, IA. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“I believe by sometime tomorrow we’ll see water on the levee, and we’ll just see how the elevations come up,” said Colonel Bob Ruch, Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Omaha District, as he stood a few yards from a stretch of brand-new levee. Tractors lined up for about a mile behind him, pulling loads of clay and dumping them along the wall.

“The quality of this levee and the material is excellent,” Ruch added. “It’s obviously almost to the standard we’d build a permanent levee to.”

Ruch is working, with volunteers and private contractors, to keep the rising river away from the city of Hamburg, just a mile or so west. Two partial levee breaches along the river last week, and a full breach this week, just five miles west of Hamburg, have put the town in urgent jeopardy.

Tractors lined the new levee, dumping clay and dirt to build it up, after a massive breach 5 miles west. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Vicki Sjulin, the owner of the Blue Moon Bar and Grill, a family-owned local staple since 1972. The restaurant is open for business, in a town mostly filled with construction workers, along with residents keeping an eye on their boarded-up homes. The pub is surrounded by its own levee, walled up with sandbags.

“I think we’re going to stay dry, whether we have water around us or not,” Sjulin said. “But the real problem here is once there’s water all around our levee, we lose power, so we’re still losing business.”

Sjulin said her home is safe, far enough away from the water to stay dry. But, she said, she sees people coming into her pub every day, who may have nowhere to go.

The Blue Moon Bar & Grill, a staple in Hamburg since 1972, is protected by a levee of sandbags and dirt. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“It’s just a wait and see,” she said. “No one knows how many levees north of us are going to break… no one knows. So we could be getting water from all directions, we don’t know.”

Even if the new levee does hold back the river, the fight’s not over. It was built in a week, and though Ruch assured it’s as sturdy as a levee can be, its strength will be tested against several weeks of high water.

“Once you get the levee in, you continue to have a fight,” he said. “You look for seepage. We’ll have patrols out here on the levee, looking for boils and things like that, and then we’ll react to them. I mean, we’re doing that along the entire Missouri basin right now.”

The Blue Moon is open for business, as the town waits to see if the river will reach downtown. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

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