Residents from a strip of 11 houses along the southern edge of Highway 30 in Ames are still cleaning their properties after last month’s floods washed out basements, destroyed vehicles and trashed belongings.
But those residents say their damage was exacerbated by the county’s decision to build a temporary dike across U.S. Highway 30, put up at the height of the flooding to prevent Platte River water from spreading further into the county. Residents also say they were never notified about the dike, nor were they ever told to evacuate. And when the dike was finished, they say it cut them off from entering or leaving their homes as the flood waters rose.
About a dozen residents gave emotional and sometimes heated testimony during the public comment section of Wednesday’s Dodge County Board of Supervisors meeting, asking the county to help address their damage. The county, meanwhile, says it plans to examine the issue and determine potential next steps.
County officials argue that the temporary dike proved crucial in preventing flood water from progressing further into the city of Fremont.
“That water would have continued down Military Avenue into the city of Fremont,” said Dodge County Board Chairman Bob Missel. “There’s no question that probably a substantial amount of property damage, far beyond what happened, would have existed to areas of town that typically are at that little lower elevation.”
During the meeting, Missel told frustrated residents that because the damage had occurred to private residences, they should seek assistance through FEMA. But he also told them that the county would look into whether the decision to build the dike contributed to their damages and what role the county could play in their recovery. He said he hopes to have direction by the next board meeting in two weeks.
“These good folks, they’ve been displaced, they have damage, and they expressed that they feel that berm was the reason for what happened to them,” Missel told the Tribune. “And so it’s something we have to look at.”
While the residents along Highway 30 acknowledge that some flooding on their properties was inevitable, they say the dike caused water to accumulate in higher-than-normal volume on their side of the highway. The water ultimately overwhelmed the properties, some of which are usually resistant to flooding in the area, residents said.
Building the dike was an emergency decision that residents Rick and Jeanne Ward could have understood, had they been notified that it was happening. They told the Tribune that they only thought to leave their home after seeing trucks building up the dike along the edge of Highway 30, near the end of their driveway. Prior to that, they believed their home would withstand the flooding, given its position in the floodplain, and they had not been told to evacuate.
“We heard the scraping out here on the highway, so we looked out there,” Rick told the Tribune. “I told [Jeanne], two or three more trucks and we’re blocked in, grab what you want and we’re leaving in five minutes.’”
The flood destroyed just about everything in the Wards’ basement, a furnace, a water heater and several vehicles. More notification could have at least given them time to move valuables to higher levels of their house or take other precautions, Jeanne argued.
Beyond social media and other media alerts, law enforcement and first responders had been knocking on doors to inform residents when it was recommended that they evacuate, Missel said. He told the Tribune that he was unsure of what may have happened in the communication process with these homeowners: “It was my assumption that the homeowners were being notified,” he said.
“As this was unfolding, it was an unprecedented event,” he said. “Resources were mobilized at 100 percent, spread out over a pretty wide area.”
The residents at Wednesday’s meeting all claimed to have received no notification. One resident, Kim Mann-Davenport, told the board that she’d been taking trips to get animals and other belongings off the property, having noticed water starting to approach the area. When she returned from making one of those trips, the dike had already been built across the front of her property, and she was unable to re-enter to get more.
“There wasn’t a lot of water at that time in our property, that we could have still got lawn mowers and rototillers and stuff out of our barn,” Mann-Davenport told the board. “We weren’t notified they were doing this. They literally blocked us off our properties so we couldn’t get in or out.”
Another resident, Joseph Holeman, told the board that he and his wife were stuck on their property for five days after the dike went up, blocking their exit. He, like others, blamed the dike for exacerbating flood damage.
“Not one soul came to my house and warned me that we had to evacuate,” Holeman said. “You sacrificed 10 homes just to save your whole city. Well, big deal. We have a life too.”
The decision to put up the dike, Missel said, was a joint decision, between himself, Highway Superintendent Scott Huppert and Emergency Manager Tom Smith. It was done with approval from the Nebraska Department of Roads, Missel said.
The decision was made in the midst of the flooding, as the county was working with several agencies from the Emergency Operations Center at the Fremont Police Department. Officials determined that the situation was playing out similarly to another flood that occurred in 1978. At that time, county officials had mitigated the damage by building a berm across Highway 30.
Missel, Smith and Huppert went down to the site and saw that water had already accumulated on both sides of the highway, including around the properties along the highway.
“After conferring with the Nebraska Department of Roads, we collectively agreed to fight it there again, as we had in the past,” Missel told the Tribune.
Prior to the dike being put up, Rick Ward said there was some water on his property. But his house had still been untouched because it was on somewhat higher ground. He argued that dike stopped the water from flowing through, which residents said ultimately raised the water levels on their properties.
“We would have had water. We would have had 8, 10, 12 inches of water,” Ward said. “But not 3, 4 feet of water.”
Rick Ward said that he and his wife had gone to FEMA seeking help, but said the money offered wouldn’t cover half the cost of just repairing their furnace and water heater. Other residents shared similar disappointment with FEMA during the meeting.
Throughout the meeting, residents submitted written testimony to the board as well, as board members repeatedly sought to express sympathy for the residents’ plights.
“It’s been truly a terrible tragedy for our community, for our families, for our homes,” Missel said at the meeting. “We’re very sensitive to what you have been through.”