Finger in the Dike: 2011 | KCUR

Finger in the Dike: 2011

Jun 20, 2011

Rural Platte County, MO – The Missouri River approaching Kansas City is becoming more bloated than it's been in decades. Overflow, by millions-of-gallons a minute is being dumped from brimming reservoirs in the Dakotas. Interests along the river watch with a keen eye. They range from farmers to railroads to people who live behind levees. KCUR's Dan Verbeck has been attuned to the river for weeks and filed this account.

By time the river is past St. Joseph and Leavenworth, it's ready to push through curves and wriggles in its path toward the heart of the metro region.

We picked an arbitrary segment of flatland to watch. This extends from a few miles south of Weston down to the community of Waldron. Two levees guard it. The federal government paid for installation in the 1950's. Local taxes pay for upkeep.

Menno Attema farms 2500 acres of it and he's head of the levee board. The Army Corps of Engineers sets standards for how they're supposed to be built.. The Corps also is releasing the deluge upstream-- "there's no such thing as guarantees but I'm confident our system can withstand that. Its always to which degree because the Corps has indicated with their models, a low flow event. That means minimal rainfall for this area. We would be able to manage it relatively easy. During an extreme high rainfall situation, even our system would be challenged to withstand that." This is about protecting land from flooding. And people, ultimately.

Drivers passing on Missouri Highway 45, also known as Northwest 64th closer to Parkville, may not notice a lot of homes out in the flatland. The levee board president says--"There's 70 some homes still in the Farley-Beverly District. And then, in the Waldron area quite a bit less but still more than you would think." Attema and his family are among those 70 families and the levee holding is vitally important to them all.

There is also the rail link. Burlington Northern Santa Fe's line is carrying coal by the millions of tons this time of year, going to power plants making electricity. The levees protect this main rail line. Attema's Levee district's been stockpiling huge concrete blocks to reinforce the levee if it weakens, and the railroad is set to help move those block floodwalls, says Attema. "The Burlington Northern Santa Fe is of great assistance with that, they've already committed themselves to have equipment available."

Attema talked about heavy rainfall being the biggest threat. He's not alone. Every levee upstream has an effect on the first sizeable metro town really threatened by flooding. Parkville.

If a levee to the north fails, it takes some strain off Parkville for a short time, but only a short time. During flood protection work in Parkville, Platte County Commissioner Kathy Dusenberry was concerned about river rise but also streams that feed the river. Her voice was nearly drowned out by sound of heavy earthmoving equipment and sandbagging activity around her as she observed-- "In our favor is the fact we haven't had the rains. And we're not having precipitation we could have. That did happen in 93."

Everybody mentions the flood of 93. Signs are still painted on walls for high water marks. In addition to Parkville, water was high in the levee-protected farmland watched over by Menno Attema in that flood year . Even back then, it was not a new phenomenon to him. Attema has known about levees from infancy. Dikes, in the parlance of the Netherlands where he was born and raised, in farming.

"You were raised below sea level. You raise crops and you go over the top of the dike and the water on other side of the dike is substantially higher than where you're living. And its just the most normal thing, you don't even give it a thought. On these river events too, if our system is solid, there should be no fear."

There's hardly a soul living along the river not watching every little rise.