Memories of the 2011 Flood
A column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard:
It is hard to believe that it has been almost five years since the Missouri River flood.
I first received word of the escalating water releases from the Oahe Dam on a Tuesday as I was on my way back from Chicago. We had been visiting with Bel Brands about doing business in South Dakota, and in a matter of moments our focus shifted from business recruitment to how we would manage the rising waters.
At the time I had no idea that flood response would be our primary focus for the next several weeks. The Army Corps of Engineers told us the releases would be at record-high levels and it was uncertain how long they would continue.
My kids had planned to come to Pierre that Memorial Day weekend to relax. After hearing the news I called them to cancel our plans. They came to Pierre anyway and spent the weekend filling sandbags with my wife Linda.
The following days were a flurry of activity.
In short order we opened up the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), blocked one lane of Interstate 29 for use as a haul road, and asked the citizens in some areas of Dakota Dunes and Fort Pierre to evacuate.
We watched as Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters placed one-ton helibags of sand in and around places like McCook Lake, Wynstone and Yankton.
I recall flying over Lake Oahe and seeing the big whirlpool that formed where the water was draining through the dam.
I spent hours in the EOC, assisting in the Pierre/Fort Pierre area response, while Lt. Gov. Matt Michels coordinated efforts in the southeast.
We walked the levees, to ensure the berms of earth and rock were solid; we rode in dump trucks to monitor traffic so it flowed as efficiently as possible; and we helped our neighbors carry their possessions to higher ground.
I remember the frustration we felt as the water-flow peak estimates changed from 85,000 cubic feet per second, to 110,000 cfs and ultimately to 160,000 cfs. The previous peak release from the 50-year-old Oahe Dam was 59,000 cfs. Things looked grim but there was no time for doubt.
There was a noticeable feeling of relief when the National Guard arrived. They worked for 96 consecutive days on 12- to 15-hour shifts. It was the largest in-state deployment since the 1972 Rapid City Flood. Prison inmates also pitched in. At one point, the National Guard members and the inmates started a competition to see which group could fill the most sandbags.
I can still see the faces of the state and local emergency response officials, mayors, county commissioners, and the individuals from the Red Cross and Salvation Army who worked so tirelessly. I remain grateful for the long hours they labored.
I will never forget the crews who worked so hard to construct the levees. In just a few days, they did a job that would normally take months or years. They constructed earthen berms that held back the Mighty Missouri for several miles. As crews were building the levees, there were times they could see the water rising and did not know if they could finish in time; but they kept on going.
Most of all, I remember the volunteers. People from all over the state came to help. They came by the busload. They filled thousands and thousands of sandbags to protect homes, businesses and loved ones. They brought food, drink, comfort, encouragement and hope to the crews.
At one point, I met a retired woman living in Pierre who didn’t know if she’d get her house sandbagged in time. She lived on her own and was struggling. Before the water arrived a group of young volunteers showed up just in time and got the job done. There are many similar examples up and down the river.
South Dakota had had disasters before – tornadoes, blizzards, fires and floods. We always have joined together to help our neighbors recover and move forward. But this flood was different. We had never been given so much advance warning. Thousands of South Dakotans joined together to avoid a disaster.
Many homes were damaged, and some were destroyed. Still, we did all we could, and thanks to our efforts, a great deal of property damage and human suffering was avoided. As high as the floodwaters rose, South Dakota rose higher. I am just as proud today as I was five years ago.