Experts warn Midwest flood risk may persist for months
ST. LOUIS — Even as floodwaters receded in hard-hit places in the Midwest, experts warned Saturday that with plenty of snow still left to melt in northern states, the relief may only be temporary.
Rainfall and some snowmelt spurred flooding in recent weeks that’s blamed in three deaths so far, with two men in Nebraska missing for more than a week. Thousands were forced from their homes in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, as water broke through or poured over levees in the region. The damage is estimated at $3 billion, and that figure is expected to rise.
As temperatures start to warm, snowmelt in the Dakotas and Minnesota will escalate, sending more water down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries.
Lt. Col. James Startzell, deputy commander of the Corps of Engineers’ Omaha, Nebraska, district, said even warmer temperatures are possible into next week. He urged those living near rivers to keep a wary eye on them.
Bill Brinton, emergency management director for hard-hit Buchanan County, Missouri, which includes St. Joseph’s 76,000 residents, said he expects more flooding this spring. Buchanan and its neighboring counties have been ravaged by this round of flooding.
“There’s a sense from the National Weather Service that we should expect it to continue to happen into May,” Brinton said. “With our levee breaches in Atchison and Holt and Buchanan counties, it’s kind of scary really.”
A precautionary evacuation involving hundreds of homes in the St. Joseph area was lifted as the Missouri River began a swift decline after coming just inches short of the 1993 record. St. Joseph was largely spared, but Brinton said 250 homes were flooded in the southern part of Buchanan County. It wasn’t clear when residents would be able to get back.
When they do, officials say they need to be careful. Contaminants that escaped from flooded farm fields, industrial operations and sewage plants are part of the murky water now saturating homes.
In Fremont County, Iowa, homes remain underwater, so it will be some time before residents can return, said county Supervisor Randy Hickey.
“We don’t want them in that water, anyway,” Hickey said.
The water itself isn’t the only concern. Experts warn that sharp objects — broken glass, pieces of metal, pointy sticks and rocks — could lurk in muddy debris. Downed or broken power lines also may pose electrocution hazards.
Another risk is posed by river wildlife. Brinton said two people in Buchanan County were bitten by snakes after returning home following flooding in 2011.
The Missouri River had yet to crest further downstream in Missouri, but flooding impact in those areas was expected to be far less severe.
Concern was rising on the Mississippi River, too. Major flooding was reported at several spots north of the Iowa-Missouri line. St. Louis and other Missouri cities were seeing mostly moderate flooding.
Even the lower Mississippi River was impacted. The U.S. Coast Guard on Friday rescued two boaters from a disabled vessel near New Orleans. Coast Guard officials said the flooding means more debris in the river, and the currents can pull a boat into danger.