KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Several levees in northern Missouri were failing Sunday to hold back the surge of water being released from upstream dams, and locals braced themselves for more breaches as the Missouri River dipped but then rose again.
A hole in the side of a Holt County levee continued to grow, deluging the state park and recreational area in Big Lake, a community of less than 200 people located 78 miles north of Kansas City. The water — some from recent rain — started pouring over levees Saturday night and Sunday morning in Holt and Atchison counties, flooding farmland, numerous homes and cabins.
In Nebraska, a flooding alert was issued for a second nuclear power plant. But officials said it was the least serious emergency notification issued, and the public and workers are not threatened.
The Missouri River dipped by almost 1 foot after the Big Lake breach in Missouri, but water started to rise again by Sunday afternoon, said Jud Kneuvean, chief of emergency management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Kansas City District.
Kneuvean said he thought the flooding in the area wouldn't start for another day or two, but the water level surged by about 2 feet from Saturday morning to Sunday morning. The corps suspects that the culprit was an influx of rainwater that combined with a surge from a notch cut in the breached Hamburg, Iowa, levee to allow trapped water to flow back into the river.
"I looked at it mid-evening (Saturday) and told one of my co-workers, 'We are going to have levees start popping,'" Kneuvean said. "Within about an hour, we were getting the calls on them."
He said Big Lake is seeking permission to cut a relief hole in an already-damaged county levee to allow water trapped behind the levee to flow back into the river. The levee protects about 13,000 acres of farmland as well as the state park.
Presiding Holt County commissioner Mark Sitherwood said U.S. 159 was closed south of Big Lake because of water pouring over the road. Much of Big Lake's west side was underwater.
Most people left their homes well in advance of the flooding. Those who stayed were told Saturday night that water was flowing into the area.
Big Lake residents Juli and Steve Crenshaw, who stayed behind and used kayaks to get around, spent Saturday night scrambling to fix leaks in levees. After helping to shore up one levee, they headed to another one.
"But when we got there with sandbags, the levee was gone," said Juli Crenshaw, whose own basement was starting to take on water. "It was too late. So we left there and went to another levee and started working to save it."
The Big Lake area, where water has been high for the past couple weeks, has experienced major flooding in three of the last five years. Sitherwood said this year promises to be much worse following weeks of high flows and increasing releases from the main stem dams in Montana and the Dakotas.
In Atchison County, there was a nearly steady flow of water over a half-mile stretch of a levee near U.S. 136 and overtopping at various points to the north of that area, said Mark Manchester, deputy director of emergency management for the county. He said the river level in the county had reached 44.6 feet, the highest on record and about 4 to 5 inches higher than 1993 flooding levels.
The water was flooding several thousand acres of farmland, but so far no homes had been inundated since a breach this past Monday caused about a dozen homes to take on water, Manchester said.
Because of the high waters, U.S. 136 was closing near the Missouri-Nebraska border.
He said residents in the area had already evacuated their homes, and officials who operate the levee went up in a helicopter and saw several "pretty good size holes starting to form."
Kneuvean, the corps official in Kansas City, said that whenever a levee is being overtopped to the extent occurring in Atchison County, the best hope is that it stays intact for 12 hours. After that, "all bets are off," he said.
A complete breach of the levee could displace up to 200 more people.
Meanwhile, in Nebraska, the flooding alert issued by the Nebraska Public Power District for the Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville, Neb., didn't stop the plant from operating at full capacity Sunday. The Fort Calhoun Station, another nuclear plant along the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska, issued a similar alert June 6. That plant near Blair, Neb., has been shut down since April and will not be reactivated until the flooding subsides.
Jodi Fawl, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said water was flowing over a levee in the Brownville area and into farmland, but the levee was being built up to alleviate that.
Associated Press writers Timberly Ross in Omaha, Neb., and Bill Draper in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.