Letter From Langdon: Less Than A Latte

First the government told Hamburg, Iowa, to evacuate. The town said no, and built levees that protected it from months of flooding. Now the government is telling Hamburg to tear the levee down!

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Along the Missouri River these days, folks are saying dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. That’s because when it comes to rain, God giveth, but the government taketh away — flood control, that is.

For instance take the little Iowa town sitting on the apron strings of the Missouri River Valley called Hamburg. Hamburg, Iowa, understands rivers because the town is hemmed on the east by the Nishnabotna River, and on the west by the Missouri. 

During rainy seasons the Nishnabotna can be a wild little river. That’s where most floods Hamburg has known came from. Just below the confluence of the East and West Nishnabotna where the flow is concentrated before entering the Missouri is where Hamburg was built in the mid 1800s. 

The Nishnabotna has been known to push water into the lower end of town, but never even close to the flagpole in the middle of Main Street.

Ever since 1952, Federal levees on the Missouri seemed almost foolproof. Foolproof, that is, until the US Army Corps of Engineers rolled into town in 2011 to say that Missouri River floodwater could rise halfway up the old, previously dry flagpole. 

Needless to say, the Corps caused a stir.

There were mass evacuations from Hamburg. Businesses loaded up their wares and residents took everything but the kitchen sink to higher ground ahead of Floodageddon. 

Then the little town that could decided to fight.

Forty acres at the west edge of the city limits was purchased from a local farmer. The Corps of Engineers and community volunteers went to work using soil from the purchased acreage to build up a low levee at the edge of town originally constructed to contain drainage water from heavy runoff during rainy spells. 

The new levee was built in a matter of days. And it worked. Day after day, week after week, month after month it held and Hamburg was saved. 

I-think-I-can became yes-we-can.

And they did. They saved the town.

(Note to President Obama; isn’t this what you were talking about?)

Now the Corps says the levee was only temporary and they’re flooding the town with some big past due bills and orders to tear it out. 

Little Hamburg, with an annual city budget of $1.2 million, the town that already spent $1 million just fighting last year’s flood, has to pay the Corps $5 million+ or take the levee down to its original size. That would cost $1.4 million. (5)

On top of that even before the flood the city had bond debts of $1.7 million.

Richard Oswald
This flagpole in downtown Hamburg had never been touched by floodwater. Last summer, the Corps of Engineers said floodwater would climb halfway up the pole — and that residents should abandon the town. Hamburg picked another option, building a levee that protected the city through months of record flooding.

Those are big numbers for a town of 1,174.

Here’s the problem: The Corps says the new levee wasn’t built to its standards. The levee went up too fast. Corps levees aren’t just piles of dirt. They have to be studied and engineered. Most have a sand core because that’s the material they have the most of along rivers. Sand doesn’t make a good levee by itself; it has to be covered with something better. 

And it all has to be packed and shaped for weeks so it’ll hold its form when water stands against it. 

But the five-days-in-the-making Hamburg levee is 100% soil. That’s where the 40 acres came into play. So, from a compaction and engineering standpoint, the levee is really just a pile of dirt — dirt that was tried and tested successfully during the continuously flooded months of June, July, August, September, and October. 

The Corps’ sand levees are designed to last a few weeks at the most.

Regardless of trial-by-fire experience (and common sense), Hamburg has to play by the government rules. (Quite by coincidence, the government writes the rules.) Hamburg can pay the Corps $5 million for a pass, or pay contractors $1.4 million to tear it all out. 

If this spring or the next, or the one after that, comes around wet and wicked Hamburg gets to do it all over again…assuming, of course, the town can find the money.

So now the levee that saved the town threatens to ruin the town financially.

This is the kind of thing that gives government its bad name. If the levee had protected a big city, all we’d be arguing about is which politician gets to speak at the dedication. But when it comes to small towns and rural communities, Uncle Sam always seems to double down on the rulebook.

Thanks to Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain’s idea, everyone can help. She figures if 1.5 million people traveling along I-29 see billboard advertising directing them to hamburglevee.com they’ll donate the price of a latte, and the bill will be paid in full before the town is destroyed by its own flood protection. (To donate, go here.)

Levee or latte?

You be the judge.

 

 

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