Residents of Pierre and Fort Pierre worked feverishly Thursday to stack sandbags and move furniture in anticipation of flooding that could overtake 500 or more homes in the Missouri River communities.
"There's an incredible outpouring of support from throughout the community," said Ron Jeffries, general manager of the Central States Fair in Rapid City, who was in Fort Pierre on Thursday to help his parents protect their home at the mouth of the Bad River. "People from high ground are coming down to help sandbag."
Discharges of water from Oahe Dam have increased dramatically as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tries to cope with heavy rains and melting snow in places like the Black Hills and the Yellowstone Basin, which have poured into the Missouri River reservoirs.
The corps' decision Wednesday night to release even more water means levels eventually will be 2 feet higher than previously thought, said Eric Stasch, operations manager at Oahe Dam, about 5 miles upstream from Pierre and Fort Pierre.
Discharges will increase to 85,000 cubic feet per second by Saturday -- several times higher than normal for this time of year -- and could reach 120,000 cfs by June 6.
Up to 100 homes in Pierre lie in the area expected to be flooded, along with a large stretch of parks and forest. Across the river in Fort Pierre, nearly half the town -- up to 400 homes and much of the downtown business district -- could be affected by either floodwaters or underground water seeping into basements.
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Most of Pierre, including the State Capitol, sits on hills overlooking the river.
No evacuation orders had been ordered early Thursday, but many people were expected to leave their homes ahead of the floodwaters. Residents were moving furniture and other possessions out of their homes or at least to higher floors, and some used sandbags to try to protect houses.
Pierre and Fort Pierre have set up 24-hour sandbagging operations, with Fort Pierre alone expected to surpass 150,000 sandbags by the end of Thursday.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who has declared an emergency to free up state resources to help deal with the flooding, said many families will have to leave their homes by Saturday and may not be able to return for two months or more. State and local agencies are lining up shelters for those who have nowhere else to stay, and federal agencies are being asked to help, he said.
"This happened overnight, so we're working as rapidly as we can," Daugaard said.
The governor said floodwaters are expected to reach homes in a low-lying area in southeast Pierre and residential areas along the river in Fort Pierre.
"We thought we were in good shape. It just got a lot worse than we had anticipated," Fort Pierre Mayor Sam Tidball said.
The Red Cross set up a short-term shelter in Pierre's middle school with cots and blankets, offering three meals a day.
Former Gov. Mike Rounds was among those spending Thursday trying to protect their homes. Rounds, who moved into a new home along the Missouri River after leaving office in January, said he has built a berm around his home and covered it with plastic tarps and sandbags.
"We don't know what to expect. This is really uncharted territory. This is almost like a free-flowing Missouri River," Rounds said.
Fort Pierre's Verendrye Museum, a collection devoted to the pioneer and cowboy days, is facing flooding.
"The artifacts that are in there, they're mostly of the homestead and the open range days -- a lot of cowboy heritage in there," said Darby Nutter, president of the museum. "Everything's basically in the condition it was in when the folks stopped using it. It's important that we save that piece of history."
Nutter has rented several storage units and is trying to pack up as many photos and other artifacts as he can to get them to higher ground. Just the humidity from the standing water could be harmful to the museum's collection, he said.
Karen Kern, a Pierre resident whose daughter lives in Rapid City, said everyone is "kind of in shock" over the flood risk.
"It's flooding already in places that we never thought it would flood before," Kern said. "It's a very serious thing."
Dams were built on the Upper Missouri River about five decades ago in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota to control flooding along the river, which runs 2,341 miles from Montana to St. Louis. Flooding is rare along the reservoirs, but high water caused problems in Pierre and Fort Pierre in 1997.
Some residents blamed the corps for not doing more to prevent the flood.
"The Corps of Engineers has completely and totally let us down," said Gary Grittner, a Fort Pierre resident who was packing up his furniture Thursday. "They told us all winter long, all spring long that they don't need to release more water out of the Oahe Dam because ‘we as the corps have done the calculations, and there's plenty of storage.' All of a sudden, they come on Tuesday morning and say, whoops, we're wrong, we're going to flood your community."
Stasch said heavy snowmelt in the Northern Plains and recent heavy rains, including more than 10 inches in the Yellowstone Basin and another nearly 10 inches in South Dakota's Black Hills, pushed water levels to the top of storage capacity in the reservoirs. Melting water from heavier-than-normal snows in the northern Rocky Mountains will be moving through the reservoirs later, he said.
"The rain really threw a monkey wrench into the plans," Stasch said.
Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill said she is focused on responding to the rising water and not casting blame.
In Oahe Reservoir, which stretches from central South Dakota up into North Dakota, water will soon reach near the top of an emergency spillway gate, Stasch said.
The Oahe Dam normally releases about 25,000 cubic feet of water a second through the hydroelectric power plant at this time of year, Stasch said. Releases were 75,000 cubic feet per second through the power plant and emergency gates on Thursday and were projected to reach 85,000 by Saturday, he said. Releases will rise again June 4-6 to 100,000 cubic feet per second, and then go to 110,000 cubic feet a second by late June or early July.
The water level in the Pierre area was already 3 feet higher than normal Thursday and is expected to rise another 4 feet with higher releases from the dam in the next month, Stasch said.
Miller said he and other residents are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
"It's one of those things we don't have a whole lot of control over," Miller said. "We do the best we can."
The Associated Press contributed to this story
Contact David Montgomery at 394-8329 or firstname.lastname@example.org