Nic Shearer and his family scrambled to get 27,000 bushels of corn and several pieces of machinery moved before swiftly rising Missouri River waters breached a levee in mid-March and overtook their farm near Hamburg.
“We started hauling out Thursday afternoon (March 14) in the mud as kind of a precaution,” he said. The urgency picked up the following day. “We got our corn moved out, and pretty much all the machinery moved out late Friday night. At that point, we got the word that this was going to be bad.”
A day later, roads were being closed, and anything that hadn’t been moved had to be left behind as the worst flooding in at least 70 years devastated Hamburg and other river communities in Fremont and Mills counties. The floodwaters deluged thousands of acres of farmland in Mills and Fremont counties, swallowing up grain bins, machine sheds and houses, and submerging Interstate 29, which was shut down from Council Bluffs to St. Joseph, Missouri.
“We’re not nearly as affected as some of our neighbors,” said Shearer. One farmer, he noted, “has every bushel from his 2018 crop under water right now.”
For Hamburg, the damage will surpass the 2011 flood, Shearer said.
“The benchmark would be the flood of 1952, when water got to the city park,” he said. “On Monday, it got two blocks north of that.”
Officials estimated flood damage in Iowa at $1.6 billion, including $214 million in agriculture losses. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds toured the area with Vice President Mike Pence last week and asked for a federal disaster proclamation to help with recovery.
“It’s hard to really describe the devastation that we witnessed. It looked like an ocean,” she said. “It’s just unbelievable. Those are fifth-generation farms, those are businesses, communities.”
Reynolds issued a state disaster declaration for 43 counties as flooding from rapid snowmelt and rainfall over frozen ground caused problems across the state, primarily in western and northern Iowa. High water also forced the closure of five Mississippi River locks in southeast Iowa and northeast Missouri, affecting grain and fertilizer transport. In addition, a number of railroads in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska were washed out.
Farmers and officials fear that more major flooding will occur as spring rainfall picks up and the deep snowpack in Minnesota and the Dakotas begins to melt. NOAA’s spring outlook last week predicted the historic, widespread flooding will continue through May.
The upper Mississippi River and eastern Missouri River basins are among the areas of greatest risk for moderate to major flooding, the agency said. The upper Mississippi and Red River of the North basins have received rain and snow this spring up to 200 percent above normal, and some areas still have more than 30 inches of snow on the ground.
“The extensive flooding we’ve seen in the past two weeks will continue through May and become more dire and may be exacerbated in the coming weeks as the water flows downstream,” said Ed Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “This is shaping up to be a potentially unprecedented flood season, with more than 200 million people at risk for flooding in their communities.”
Hamburg and other Iowa towns along the river are especially vulnerable after at least 30 levees were breached south of Council Bluffs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported.
“Up north, the snow hasn’t even begun to melt yet,” said Shearer.
The aftermath of the flooding could also knock thousands of acres from production, as it did in 2011 when farmland was covered by sand and silt. Homes and buildings could also be beyond repair.
“People have been talking about what it’s going to look like when the water recedes,” Shearer said. “One of our seed guys has a building in town. He was expecting 8.5 feet of water in his building. By Monday, he probably had 10 feet of water.”
The local AgriVision John Deere dealership, which was spared from the 2011 flood, was also underwater, Shearer said.
Farmers have many questions about what to do with stored grain that was swallowed up in the floodwaters. Grain flooded by river water cannot be sold or used for livestock feed, according to Charles Hurburgh with the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative. There may be cases where stored grain above the floodline is salvageable, subject to inspection.
“Remove good grain on top of flooded grain from the top or side, not down through the flooded grain,” said Hurburgh. “The good grain is still suspect, which is why FDA must evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis before it can be sold into any uses.”
Significant livestock losses were also reported due to the flooding, especially in Nebraska, where Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson estimates up to $500 million in livestock losses.