South Dakota dam, warned of 'biblical flood'

FORT PIERRE, South Dakota - A government worker in a Missouri River community sounded the alarm well before the Flood of 2011 started making headlines across the Midwest, but did the Army Corps of Engineers hear his concerns?

In Fort Pierre, the motorized hum of pumps provide a constant soundtrack on city streets. It is a constant battle to suck up groundwater and send it back to the river. Meantime, homeowners and businesses hope miles of hastily-constructed levees stand firm.

Brad Lawrence, the city's public works director, has been on the front lines, watching the water transform his hometown of 2,100 people since Memorial Day weekend.

"The impact is substantial. It might as well have flooded in some cases because people have left their homes. Some of the businesses are empty and the overall feeling of the community is completely different," Lawrence said.

Lawrence actually started fearing the worst last winter, when he calculated snowmelt totals from the mountains and the plains. He figured the huge reservoir at the Oahe Dam, just upstream from Fort Pierre, would need plenty of extra space. He thought the Corps should begin an early release of water in anticipation.

As the Capital Journal reported , Lawrence sent a series of emails to Kevin Morley of the American Waterworks Association (AWWA) in February, which turned out to be an incredibly accurate prediction.

"The Corps of Engineers has failed thus far to evacuate enough water from the main stem reservoirs to meet normal runoff conditions. This year's runoff will be anything but normal," Lawrence wrote to Morley in one email. "The Corps will hold back water to help alleviate the downstream flooding, filling the resevoirs to capacity in the process. Once full, they will pass everything that comes in."

The chain of emails distributed to public works leaders in other states also warned of "flooding of biblical proportions." Lawrence said his main intent was to let people in places like Missouri and Kansas know about the snowpack levels that would eventually run off into the river and head downstream to their riverbanks.

So was his prediction prophetic?

"Unfortunately, yes," Lawrence said. "It turned out almost exactly what my worst-case scenario was."

Biblical? Perhaps not. However, the flood will easily surpass 40 days and 40 nights. A recovery could take years. The second-guessing may last just as long.

"I hope in the end we come out of this with a leaner, smarter, and more adaptive Corps of Engineers," Lawrence said. "None of us will ever live to see this valley the same beauty that it is now, and that's probably the hardest part about all of this."

The Corps of Engineers has maintained that a perfect storm of spring rainfall made it impossible to prevent this year's flooding.

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