MISSOURI VALLEY, Iowa (Reuters) - Iowa residents were evacuating flood-prone areas near the Missouri River on Friday and state transportation officials accelerated plans to close part of Interstate 29 due to fast-rising waters.
In Missouri Valley, Iowa, north of Council Bluffs, that meant that David Wilson, his wife Jan Wilson and their dog were left alone among homes evacuated for a three-block area, waiting for the river to reach them on the west side of town.
“All those people are gone,” the gray-haired David Wilson said, pointing out vacant homes a mile from the Missouri River. “They’re gone. They’re gone. And they’re gone.”
Residents have been shoring up levees along the Missouri River from Montana through Missouri as federal officials reach toward record planned water releases to relieve pressure on six major reservoirs swollen by heavy rains and melting snow.
Six dams from Fort Peck in Montana to Gavins Point on the South Dakota-Nebraska border are at peak releases now, or are planned to reach them by mid June, and hold them to at least mid August.
The river runs freely below Gavins Point for more than 800 miles to the Mississippi River, making those maximum releases planned to start Tuesday a focus for residents along the Lower Missouri, including those in Missouri Valley.
“I‘m going to stay here as long as I can,” Wilson said. “If the water comes up to the door, I’ll put my waders on and get in my boat, which will be parked out front.”
Wilson said he was pouring $1,000 into a barricade of concrete, wood and dirt to keep the basement of the house he bought in 1993 from flooding. He has sump pumps, and a generator if power is cut off.
Iowa transportation officials closed a 10-mile section of Interstate 29 north of Council Bluffs late Thursday, earlier than expected because of faster rising floodwaters.
Flooding has disrupted Amtrak rail service on the Empire Builder through North Dakota and the California Zephyr that runs through Omaha. The U.S. Coast Guard has closed about 260 miles of the Missouri to boaters from Gavins Point south to where the borders of Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri meet.
In southwest Iowa, contractors were racing Friday to finish a secondary levee to protect Hamburg from an expected failure of a Missouri River levee that has had three partial breaches.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has little confidence the levee will withstand the full weight of the Missouri. About 300 of Hamburg’s 1,200 residents are under mandatory evacuation.
“The Corps is still working hard to get the extra protection of the city dike around Hamburg finished because it is just a matter of time ... before it goes,” said Mike Crecelius, emergency management director for Fremont County where Hamburg is located.
“It’s not if it goes, it is when it goes.”
Corps officials have warned more breaches are likely given the varying strengths of the flood protections and the height, speed and duration of planned water releases.
Heavy Montana rains this week have sharply increased flows into the Fort Peck reservoir, forcing the Corps to increase releases to 60,000 cubic feet per second on Friday, from previous plans for a rate of 50,000.
The Corps has said the Garrison Dam reservoir above Bismarck can handle the additional releases from Fort Peck and has left intact its planned maximum releases at 150,000 cubic feet per second from the other five dams.
Montana officials on Friday reported scores of impassable roads and bridges and worsening flooding in the Missouri River valley, as well as in the Columbia River basin on the other side of the Continental Divide.
Dozens of families evacuated Sun River west of Great Falls when water up to 3 feet deep spilled over from the Sun River, and Roundup in central Montana was accessible only by boat or helicopter due to flooding on the Musselshell River.
On Thursday, a levee breach prompted evacuation warnings for residents near the confluence of the Clark Fork River and Rock Creek east of Missoula in the Columbia River basin.
West of Missoula, the Corps raced to build levees along the Clark Fork after overflows flooded some basements.
Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis, Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho, and Kay Henderson in Des Moines; Editing by Jerry Norton