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Missouri River Town Struggles to Survive 2019 Flood

Holt and Atchison Counties Face Long Road to Recovery

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Above image credit: A view of Craig, Missouri, from a bluff that overlooks the town. Craig was almost completely underwater after the flood of 2019. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

CRAIG, Mo. — At Paula’s Cafe, over the crack and pop of one-pound burgers sizzling on a stove, locals ponder river heights.

“It’s 14 feet right now,” one man muses.

“How many inches (of rain) did you get last night? I got 9/10ths,” responds another.

The flood of 2019 was devastating to Holt and Atchison counties, but the toll of high waters is still being felt. 

It all started with a bomb cyclone that hit northeast Nebraska in March 2019, which dumped rain on snow-packed ground, causing runoff that made the Missouri River run wild. More heavy rain in May made an already bad situation worse.

Craig, Missouri, population sign
A population sign outside of Craig, Missouri, has been altered. After the flood of 2019, many of the town’s residents were displaced. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

Now communities in the two counties are grappling with the aftermath: washed out levees, ruined roads, flooded homes, scoured farmland and broken families. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic shock have only added to the run of bad news. 

With a recovery effort that many estimate will take two or three years, and cost more than $1 billion dollars, these communities aren’t out of rough waters yet.

Fire and Water

Paula’s Cafe is a staple in Craig, a town of 231 nestled between the Missouri River and the bluffs looming over Interstate 29. The flood of 2019 left the town, located about halfway between Kansas City and Omaha, almost completely underwater.

But the flood wasn’t the first disaster to strike Paula’s Cafe, nor would it be the last. 

In February 2018, Paula’s was hit with a fire that forced the cafe to close. Just over a year later, the flood of 2019 would do the same. Now in 2020, COVID-19 is keeping many customers away. 

Despite it all, Paula’s is bouncing back, as are other small businesses. Craig’s C-Store recently reopened to provide residents with gas that they had been driving 10 miles to get while it was closed.

But small businesses weren’t the only ones forced out by the flood. 

Larry and Veronica Hutson were renters in Atchison County. Both are in their 60s and are disabled. When the flood came, it filled their house up to the height of Larry’s rubber boots. They were forced to take their camper and find somewhere to park it. 

The Hutsons moved from place to place, living in a campground for about three months, until Larry was able to buy a trailer. He’s still fixing it up.

“I’m rebuilding this trailer, not remodeling it,” Hutson said. “Because we don’t have any choice.”

To make matters worse, Veronica has had to have three surgeries since the flood, and a fourth is on the way. 

“It just hasn’t been real good on us,” Hutson said.

As renters, the couple did not receive any federal assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but they did get help from the community. 

Sam O’Riley with Atchison County Community Services has helped provide the Hutson’s with a wood stove, food and other essentials during their time of need. She said it’s important to help those who were displaced.

“Renters got hit hard. Our county isn’t huge. There aren’t a lot of places to live,” O’Riley said. “I’ve seen a lot of people go through not only financial, but emotional trouble.”

Flood displacement was a major problem for the counties, and will continue to be in 2020. Many people in the area worked across the state line in Nebraska, but when the flood quadrupled their 30 minute commute, some were forced to either move to where they worked, or split up from their families to work.

A flooded field outside of Watson, Missouri.
A flooded field outside of Watson, Missouri. Standing water has been a problem for farmers with poor drainage. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

Locals share stories of couples splitting over the emotional strain the flood caused. With people moving away, and families splitting apart, the school district is seeing an exodus of students. 

Craig R-III is already a small district. In the 2017-18 school year 78 students were enrolled K-12. For the coming school year, estimates are that the number will be almost cut in half. Joe Lear, Northwest Regional director for MU extension, said that if people don’t move back, he doubts the schools will be able to open back up.

To make matters even worse, 2020 is a census year. With so many people displaced by flooding, it’s doubtful there will be an accurate account of the people living in Holt and Atchison county, which could affect how much funding public services, like schools, will get in the coming years. 

When the Levee Breaks

As of June 10, 22 of the 65 levees included in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rehabilitation projects are still breached. Sixty-one of those levees have been approved for repairs. 

Tom Waters, Missouri Levee and Drainage District association chairman, said the Omaha levee district (which includes two levees in Holt County) has already dolled out $600 million in repair costs. The Kansas City district is expected to pay less, but Waters said initial estimates called for at least $1 billion in spending. 

There are three types of levees: federal, non-federal and private. Federal levees are paid for and owned exclusively by the federal government. Non-federal levees are built by other entities such as farmers, a levee district, or others and are paid for at a 80/20 split, with most of the money coming from the federal government. The other 20% comes from various landowners, or the levee district varying from levee to levee. These non-federal levees can be a bit harder to get repaired.

“That may not seem like a lot, but some of these repairs can cost $50 million,” Waters said. “It can be hard for all of these landowners to come up with the money.”

A recently fixed levee outside of Watson, Missouri.
A recently fixed levee outside of Watson, Missouri. As of June 10, 22 of the 65 levees that are a part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rehabilitation project remain breached. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

Not only is repairing a levee expensive, it’s also a complicated process.

“You would think we could just go out and put the levee back,” Waters said. “They have to do historical surveys, environmental surveys, real estate reviews, cultural reviews. Something can pop up and cause a major delay.”

Long story short, this process on the non-federal side can be drug out for a long time, and there are some instances of that happening already. 

Take Missouri levee L536 for example. A whole year after it was assessed for damages in June 2019, it was awarded a repair contract for $8.74 million in June of 2020. 

Mike Doolin, emergency management specialist for the Kansas City District, said that taking so long is an outlier, and that work typically gets started much more quickly. 

But even when these levees get repaired, they will just be in the same state they were in 2019… and the flood of 2011… and the flood of 1993.

Waters argues it makes a lot more sense to invest in upgrading infrastructure now, rather than continuously paying billions of dollars to keep returning levees to their prior state.

“A 500-year levee does a lot better against a 100-year flood,” Waters said.

It would take an act of Congress to get that done, and luckily for communities on the Missouri River, that is in the works. Missouri Republicans and Democrats have introduced legislation in the House and Senate to increase flood protection along the Missouri River.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced the Lower Missouri Flood Prevention Program Act (S.3403) in March. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO) introduced legislation of the same name in May.

“After the historic flooding we saw over last spring and in previous years, it is clear that we need to fundamentally change the way the Missouri River is managed,” said Blunt in a press release. “Farmers, families, and local officials I’ve talked to are rightly concerned with the lack of progress that has been made in repairing damaged infrastructure and putting stronger protections in place for the future. We can’t just sit by and wait for the next major flood event.”

Broken Roads

Farmers, of course, are still feeling the impact of the flood.

Jim Crawford, MU Extension ag engineer specialist, said that the sand deposits left over from the flood could hurt yields in 2020. However, some farmers have it better than others.

Trey Garst, a sixth generation farmer from Watson, said that despite scouring of land, this year’s crop looks good.

“I mean we won’t know until the fall, but everything looks really good,” Garst said. “It’s green, we just need some warm, dry weather. We’ve been getting too much rain.”

That rain can cause standing water for fields with poor drainage.

Garst is also a president of his local drainage district, which has requested help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and FEMA for help digging ditches to eliminate standing water on their fields. Normally this process would take a couple of months, but the money hasn’t been there to get it done and the process has been stretched out.

“We can’t afford as a district to go clean up all of the ditches,” Garst said. “We need some federal help from something like NRCS, which is who we are working with now.”

Garst is still waiting for the Missouri Department of Transportation to come out and help dig ditches for drainage on state highways. One road, State Highway D, has been damaged so badly by high floodwaters that only one lane of the road is drivable. The other lane has a five-foot drop off into the ditch. Garst said that farmers have to pull their equipment into driveways and await oncoming traffic, because their vehicles are too wide to pull over on the road. He said during the busiest season nearly 150 trucks use that road in a day. 

Trey Garst looks out over Highway D outside Watson, Missouri.
Trey Garst looks out over Highway D outside Watson, Missouri. The road is used by farmers to haul equipment, but has become too narrow to do so efficiently. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

While folks look to MoDOT for help, they aren’t necessarily in the best shape themselves. 

MoDOT depends on funding from the gas tax, and car sales. But with COVID-19 keeping people in their homes, money has become a problem. According to a News Tribune article, MoDOT expects to lose 30% of its revenue over the next 18 months. 

According to Jennifer Sardigal, MoDOT area engineer for Holt and Atchison county, Highway D is set for repairs, but the funding has been delayed. 

These processes will likely drag out until money can be found, meaning farmers will have to battle more than just mother nature in the coming years.

“The impact of the flood isn’t over,” Crawford said. “It’s going to be another three or four years.”

Fight for Survival

The cards may seem stacked against the community, but the people of Holt and Atchison counties aren’t giving up the fight. 

Radical ideas such as moving the town of Craig uphill have been thrown around, but Fuller said that idea was shot down, because the move would be so expensive. Ironically, the town once was perched higher up on the bluff, but moved down when the railroad was established.

It would not be the first time a Missouri town has changed locations due to flooding. Pattonsburg moved locations in 1998 after the flood of 1993. Pattonsburg received millions of dollars from federal and state governments to move.

A grain bin outside Watson, Missouri is filled with sand.
A grain bin outside Watson, Missouri is filled with sand. Sand deposits in fields has made it harder for farmers to grow a good crop in 2020. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

Moving the town isn’t a realistic option for Craig right now, but the Atchison-Holt Disaster Relief Committee is meeting regularly to find more practical ways to help. So far, the committee has given more than $65,000 in flood relief, and more is planned for 2020. 

As their meeting wrapped up on June 10, many people were off to other meetings, dedicated to helping the flood relief effort.

That’s because for the people of Craig, survival has become a way of life. 

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