Precautionary sandbagging has been completed at the nuclear power plant north of Omaha, evacuations of low-lying homes have escalated and Omaha is going on a flood alert as the Missouri River neared flood stage Friday.
“We’re already at a bad level and, yes, it will get worse,” said Bill Pook, emergency management director for Burt, Dodge and Washington Counties, signaling what could be a long summer along the river.
The Missouri was expected to peak at Omaha on Friday afternoon, about 8 inches below flood stage. It then should drop slightly as rain runoff flushes out of this stretch of the river.
Thus, for the near future, the river poses no significant threat to any major utilities, roads, bridges or cities in the metro area, officials said.
Rather, the region is getting “an initial wake-up call,” Pook said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dramatically increasing the amount of water it releases into the Missouri from upstream reservoirs now full from a combination of heavy rains and snowpack in the mountains that feed the river.
Already this week, about 60 homes near Fort Calhoun north of Omaha have been cut off by the rising waters. The Omaha Public Power District said its nuclear plant at Fort Calhoun, which is shut down for maintenance, is safe from flooding. Sandbagging was done to protect the pipe that takes river water into the plant.
The most immediate, widespread effect that Omaha-area residents will see is the loss of recreation options over the Memorial Day weekend.
The Missouri, Platte and Elkhorn Rivers all are considered unsafe for boating, officials said. A number of marinas along the river have closed.
Although releases from the upstream reservoirs are causing the problems, those six dams still are holding back an enormous amount of water. Were it not for the dams, parts of Council Bluffs already would be under 2 feet to 3 feet of water, said Randy Behm of the Corps.
Instead, the Omaha area should weather the higher river levels with room to spare because of its robust flood defenses, Behm said.
The Corps began upping releases from Gavins Point dam on Monday and will do so through at least the end of June. By the end of June, the amount of water being discharged from Gavins Point Dam, the dam immediately upstream of Omaha, will be nearly twice the amount being released Friday.
That means the Missouri River at Omaha will likely rise to 1 foot to 3 feet above flood stage, said the Corps’ Jody Farhat. Those levels assume no extraordinary additional rainfall adds to the river’s level.
There’s also no guarantee that higher levels of upstream discharges won’t be needed, she said.
Omaha’s Public Works Director, Bob Stubbe, told a Friday press conference that city officials are working with the Corps of Engineers in addressing the rising water.
For its part, the city is taking such precautions sandbagging at its Wastewater Treatment Plant, 5600 S. 10th St.
“We are preparing for the steps that may need to be taken,” Stubbe said.
Area parks that have closed include NP Dodge Park in north Omaha and Haworth Park in Bellevue.
Melinda Pearson, Omaha’s parks director, said the city is looking at closing Freedom Park if necessary.
“We’re monitoring it on an hourly basis,” she said. “Safety is our most important aspect right now.”
Pearson said parks officials would cancel events at the Lewis & Clark Landing downtown and other areas close to the river if the situation didn’t improve.
Within an hour before the 10 a.m. press conference at the landing, water had risen enough to splash onto the labor monuments that greet visitors there.
Prolonged high water levels will put flood defenses under tremendous stress, and that worries metro-area officials.
“This is uncharted,” said Mayor Tom Hanafan of Council Bluffs. “We don’t know what to expect — we’ve never been this high for so long — and it keeps changing.”
In Council Bluffs, residents have begun evacuating some homes on the river side of the levee.
Problems are being encountered all along the Missouri.
Near Niobrara, Neb., the river was flowing into Lazy Acres, a riverside community of several hundred homes.
“Everybody is scrambling to get out,” said Maggie Marsh, a Lincoln resident whose father lives at Lazy Acres. “People are just looking for a place to live.”
A foot of water covered the road in some places, so people were driving across farm fields to get to their homes, she said.
Late Thursday, the Red Cross announced that it had opened a shelter at Fort Calhoun High School for flood victims.
Officials also offered advice for people with homes and businesses at risk:
» Get flood insurance before it’s too late. Once you purchase it, you have to wait 30 days for it to go into effect.
» Remove valuable possessions from your basement if it typically takes on water.
» If you’ve got a sump pump, be sure it’s ready and working. Run it through a full operational test.
This report includes material from the World-Herald News Service.
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