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People in the Missouri River Valley battle climate change, bureaucracy following devastating floods

Many who stayed after 2011, betting the valley wouldn’t flood again for decades, left after 2019, realizing they may have made a bad bet.

PERCIVAL, Iowa (CN) — Andrea Schoville and her family moved from Omaha into a small 2.6-acre farmstead on the floodplain of the Missouri River Valley in October 2018.

She and husband Matt knew the area had flooded in 2011, but floodwaters back then didn’t quite reach the two-story house. And even if they would have to deal occasionally with some flooding, it would be a quiet place to raise their daughters, free of the hubbub of the city.

They fully renovated the five-bedroom house. But five months after they moved in, the Missouri River Valley flooded again, this time it was much worse than in 2011, filling the entire valley with water — and also the home they had sunk so much of their savings and time into.

“New windows, new siding,” Schoville, 40, says now. “We literally put in our new kitchen cabinets two weeks before the flood… Whatever you can think of, we did to this house.”

Now the family of six lives in the nearby city of Hamburg. And the home in which they sunk so much time and money now sits torn open and gutted.

They still have chickens, and goats and horses like before, housed in the sheet-metal barn across the gravel driveway from their wrecked house. But now a 15-minute drive away, a drive they must make twice per day.

Stories like this are playing out in Fremont County in the valley and elsewhere following unprecedented and devastating floods in 2011 and 2019 that wreaked havoc and drove occupants away for months each time.

Andrea Schoville discusses how her family’s life has changed since the 2019 floods. In the background is their former home, wrecked by floodwaters. (Courthouse News photo/ Andrew J. Nelson)

Many who stayed after 2011, betting the valley wouldn’t flood again for decades, left after 2019, realizing they may have made a bad bet. Still others remain, having decided changes underway to the levee system here will protect their farms and homes in the event the floods repeat themselves.

Randy Timmerman, 63, lives in a small two-bedroom house near the Missouri River.

“It’s peaceful. I just love being away from all the traffic. It’s a nice slow pace,” he said.

Does it weigh on him that his home may flood once more?

“Happening twice in what eight years? You bet it does. And we pray every day that it doesn’t happen again.”

A short distance away lives Pat Sheldon, 59, who farms 2,300 acres in the valley west of Percival, near the river, in a new house, an olive-gray and brick structure built in 2014 to replace his previous house on the same site, damaged in the flooding, which dated to the 19th century, following the 2011 floods. The new one fared better in 2019.

“I’m staying, because it’s home,” said Sheldon. He is the fifth generation of his family to farm in this valley. His son is the sixth.

Down here, near the river, deer wander into your yard. You can hear the high-pitched chirping of quail, wild turkeys gobbling. You can see pheasants darting across the road, with the few signs of human life being Interstate 29 and the BNSF railroad, both running north and south about a mile east.

“We hear a train once in a while when it goes through Percival. When the air is really heavy and there is a bit of an east wind, you can hear some interstate and stuff,” said Sheldon, a longtime member of the Fremont County Emergency Management board. “I’m right where I work. I can walk outside and be there.”

Sheldon figures it may be safe to stay because of the elimination of what had been a pinch point in the levee system, causing water in the Missouri to back up. It’s the site of the Iowa Highway 2 bridge over the Missouri River to Nebraska City, Nebraska.

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The levee, normally about a half-mile from the river, veered in almost to about one-third of a mile from the bank of the river to accommodate the bridge.

Since the 2019 flood, the Iowa Department of Transportation has eliminated that pinch point, said Wes Mayberry, assistant district engineer for southwest Iowa. Mayberry said the state has straightened the levee and installed four bridges in the three-mile stretch between the river and the Interstate.

“Getting rid of this choke point is going to allow more of the Missouri River channel to flow at a steady pace,” he said.

These bridges are over natural channels in the terrain that carry water during flooding. Two more bridges will be installed by the beginning of winter.

“Water works like traffic. So if you get bottlenecks out there sometimes you have to add a lane,” Mayberry said. “It should help with the overtopping.”

Sheldon and Mike Crecelius, the Fremont County Emergency Management coordinator, both agree the potential for flooding will be reduced — but not eliminated.

“When the river stays inside the levees, we still get a little seepage on this side," Crecelius said.

Fremont County, Iowa, Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Crecelius speaks with Randy Timmerman, who lives near the river, on July 8, 2021. (Courthouse News photo/ Andrew J. Nelson)

If the pinch point had been eliminated before 2019, “there would have still been flooding. I don’t think it would have been as bad as what it was. Because the river, it would have moved south faster than what it did,” Crecelius said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has set back several levees throughout the Missouri River Valley to give the river more room to swell in times of flooding. It is also studying other potential mitigations to flooding, said Eileen Williamson, a Corps spokesperson.

But no one should expect future major flooding will be prevented.

Said Mayberry: “If you look at a topography map, there are hills to the east of I-29, and it’s pretty much flat from the hills to the Missouri River. Well, that was naturally carved by the Missouri river over the centuries. You are always at risk for flooding."

Martha Shulski, Nebraska state climatologist, said climate change could make major flooding more frequent in the Missouri River Valley. But there is no way to know for sure.

“Something on the scale of the 2019? I wouldn’t expect something of that magnitude to happen every year,” Shulski said. “My sense is that, in these lower-elevation areas that are at risk for experiencing flooding… that weather trend is accelerating, it’s increasing. I don’t see that stopping or going away.”

In 2011, 61 million acre-feet of water — the most on record, flowed by Sioux City, Iowa, where the navigable portion of the Missouri begins. In 2019 it was 60.9 million acre-feet. But for all of 2020 it was 31.2 million acre-feet. As of July 1 it was projected to be 15.6 million acre-feet for all of 2021, Williamson said.

Despite the risks, Timmerman says he is staying in the bottoms.

“I don’t know that the costs are worth it. But I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I’d come back if it happened again. I’m not going to go. I’m going to stay here. Where I’ll die is right here."

The Schovilles continue to cope with a life in Hamburg they did not expect.

Andrea's husband had hoped to retire at this farmhouse down in the valley. The family, like others in the valley, awaits money from the federal government to buy them out of their flooded house. They had to take out a loan to buy their new one.

And once they are done dealing with a maddening level of bureaucracy, they still will not be where they were before the flood, not financially, not geographically.

“Our vision is being down here, not having neighbors. That was our favorite part.”

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