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Published August 19, 2011, 04:08 PM

Corps booed at meeting on Missouri River flooding

PIERRE, S.D. — Residents of South Dakota's flood-stricken cities booed at an informal congressional hearing Friday when officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blamed the flooding on record heavy rains that fell upstream on the Missouri River in May.

By: Chet Brokaw, Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. — Residents of South Dakota's flood-stricken cities booed at an informal congressional hearing Friday when officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blamed the flooding on record heavy rains that fell upstream on the Missouri River in May.

People whose homes and businesses were damaged by high water joined local officials in criticizing the way the corps managed the flood, which has lasted nearly three months. They said the corps knew of heavy snowpacks in Plains states and northern Rocky Mountains and should have released more water from the Missouri River dams earlier in the year to create more space to hold the spring runoff.

The exchange occurred at a meeting held in Pierre by Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. and two members of the U.S. House Transportation Committee. Republican Reps. John L. Mica of Florida and Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania also joined Noem earlier for a tour of some flooded areas.

Mica, the committee's chairman, said the three lawmakers will work to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send federal aid quickly to cities and the state to help repair roads and other infrastructure and to compensate them for work that protected areas from flooding this summer. They also will seek to gain FEMA approval of financial assistance to homeowners and to make sure the corps finds a way to prevent floods in future years, he said.

After the meeting, Larry Cronin of Fort Pierre, who had water damage to his house and had to relocate his business, said the gathering was a success because the three House members have the power to seek changes in river management and push for financial help to those hurt by the flooding.

“I think we went to the right people,” Cronin said.

City officials and homeowners complained that the corps gave them only a few days warning in May that releases would increase dramatically and cause flooding downstream of the dams on the Missouri River.

State and city officials had been told earlier in May that the corps would make modest increases in the water flowing through the reservoir system. But in the final week of May, the corps several times announced higher and higher releases would be needed. The corps and the cities then built emergency earthen levees to protect large areas of the cities, and many homeowners in flood-threatened areas protected their homes with walls of sandbags and then moved to higher ground.

Because the levees have held and water levels are falling as releases are gradually dropped, many residents of low-lying areas in Pierre and Fort Pierre have moved back to their homes. About half the residents of Dakota Dunes in southeastern South Dakota had to leave their homes in early June, and they will not be able to return home until September or later.

One of the exchanges that drew boos from the crowd was when Jody Farhat, chief of water management for the Missouri River basin, said the corps had sufficient room in the six Missouri River dams to handle spring runoff until heavy rains fell in May in Montana and other upstream areas.

“We had sufficient flood-control storage available in the reservoir system to handle the plains and mountain snowpack,” she said after the noise subsided.

The crowd of several hundred cheered earlier when Steve Rounds, a businessman whose marina just below Oahe Dam near Pierre was severely damaged by high water, said the corps had mismanaged the reservoir system.

“The corps is part of the government and the government is to serve and protect. The problem is you didn't protect us,” Rounds told corps officials.

Noem said she knows that many people want to assign blame for the flooding, but she is more worried about seeking changes to avoid flooding in future years.

“When you look at these communities and the hell they've been through, they want to know it's not going to be the same story next year,” Noem said.

Fort Pierre Mayor Sam Tidball said local officials were worried that a buildup of heavy snow last spring would lead to flooding, but corps officials didn't seem to pay any attention.

Witt Anderson of the corps’ Northwestern Division in Portland said the agency went into the spring runoff with the same flood storage capacity that it has used for years. But May, June and July were three of the top five months for runoff in the 113 years records have been kept for the Missouri River, he said.

Anderson said the corps is already looking at this year's runoff data to determine if changes should be made, Anderson said. However, if water levels are dropped more in the spring as a guard against flooding, that will hurt other uses of the river in drought years, he said.

“We're going to go back and we're going to take a hard look at this data this year,” Anderson said. “That's all available to the public. We're going to see what could have been done differently. We've already started that.”

Officials said about 200 homes were damaged by high water in Pierre and another 100 or more in Fort Pierre. The city of Pierre expects to spend at least $13 million when all the bills are added up for flood protection and the eventual cleanup, Fort Pierre expects to spend at least $10 million, and state parks will likely have to spend $5 million in repairs.