The floods of 2011 and 1952 were bad, but even the old-timers cannot remember when so much water flooded the Missouri River basin in southwestern Iowa.
According to the U.S. Grains Council, signficant flooding is also affecting other parts of the U.S. Corn Belt, including Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
USGC's Global Update talked with two farmers in the Iowa flood zone this week - past U.S. Grains Council (USGC) Chairman Julius Schaaf and USGC Director Duane Aistrope - to gain insight into the severity of devastation caused by the ongoing flooding.
In Fremont County, Aistrope said farmers estimate losing roughly 1.34 million bushels of corn and 390,000 bushels of soybeans stored in farmer-owned storage along the Missouri River bottoms. That estimate does not include additional elevators with significant bushels stored in bins and ground storage along the river.
“Thousands of acres just look terrible,” Aistrope said. “It looks like one huge lake down here along the Missouri River.”
Schaaf and Aistrope both farm near Randolph, Iowa, east of the Missouri River and along the West Nishnabotna River. Map generated using Google Maps.
Schaaf and Aistrope are neighboring farmers, located near Randolph, Iowa - southeast of Omaha, Nebraska, and a short 20 miles east of the Missouri River. While neither farms directly on the Missouri River bottom, both have farmland along the West Nishnabotna River, which joins with an eastern branch before dumping into the Missouri River further south in Hamburg.
“When we get a big rip roarin’ flood and we have crops out, we lose about half our crop to the flood,” Schaaf said. “It’s been at least 10 years since we had one of those deals.”
A Wet Winter
Farmers like Schaaf and Aistrope, along with those in much of the Midwest, struggled to harvest their crops last fall due to rainfall and muddy conditions. Throughout the winter, southwestern Iowa saw above-average moisture. As a result, the soil was saturated and the waterways rose to higher than normal levels.
More snow accumulated and farmers thought winter would never end. Then, rain fell in the last two weeks - brought by the much-talked-about bomb cyclone. Five inches of rain fell during 60-degree weather, melting the snow. But, as the ground underneath remained frozen, the water ran off fields and into waterways instead of being absorbed into the soil.
The branches of the Nishnabotna River and the Missouri River flooded - quickly and severely. Neighbors, friends and family have lost homes, farmyards, equipment and more due to the rapid rise of the water.
“They did not even have time to get their equipment out, it just came so quick,” Schaaf said. “Nobody has ever seen something like this before - it just caught everybody off guard.”
Devastating Damage to Farms and Communities
Schaaf shared the story of a nearby family with a fairly new house and three small children. The family moved their belongings to the second floor as the water only reached the first story in 2011. This year, the water went higher into the second floor and they lost everything.
“They have nothing. It’s a bad deal,” Schaaf said. “And there’s thousands of those stories up and down the river - on the Nebraska side and the Iowa side. This is unbelievably cruel.”
Levees in the area continue to break. Schaaf and Aistrope sent trucks and generators down to help friends attempt to unload grain bins located on the Missouri River. Operations halted as levees broke and conditions became too dangerous to continue. The next day, the crew tried again to move more grain out - putting spotters on top of the levees.
“We couldn’t unload it fast enough,” Aistrope said, noting the team managed to move about 42,000 bushels of corn and soybeans out from his neighbor’s newly-built bins.
Surrounding towns are also continuing to see flood damage occur. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed a one-mile long wall of large sandbags covered in plastic through Hamburg. It gave way at 4:30 in the morning, leaving just enough time for Aistrope’s brother-in-law to get his mother-in-law - along with some clothes and paperwork - out of her house, located a block north of the barricade. Within an hour, the house was flooded.
“Everybody was trying to get out of the way of this thing in the short time they had,” Schaaf said. “It was fast and furious. I’ve never seen a flood come on so quickly, so intense.”
The record rainfall and flooding is also bringing a record amount of debris. On one 80-acre field, Schaaf said there are five or six acres of just corn stalks - piled three feet deep.
“There is more debris than I have seen for a long time,” Schaaf said. “All the corn stalks that got swept off upstream got carried down, hit a cross levee and just piled up. It’s the deepest and the thickest plant debris that I’ve ever seen after a flood.”
Spring Thaw Still To Come
More water is still to come as the normal snowmelt from Montana and the Dakotas does not typically arrive until June.
“This is just the beginning,” Aistrope said. “We still have the spring thaw that has to come our way. There’s a lot of stuff that has to come down this river yet.”
Snowmelt caused the last big flooding in 2011 and the great flood of 1952. The difference is that snowmelt flooding comes with advanced warning, sometimes up to a month in advance, providing time for everyone to prepare.
“They knew the water was coming in 2011. Everybody had time to get ready and take care of their stuff,” Schaaf said. “This time, there was no warning, no lead time.”
Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, both Schaaf and Aistrope insist farmers and rural communities remain resilient and up to the challenge of recovering from this disaster.
“We can work through it,” Schaaf said. “It was a lot easier when I was a lot younger, but we’ll get it done. We always do.”