NHL Owners Rise to Missouri River Flood Challenges

White boat in the water.
The USS Hazard photographed on June 28, 2011.

Photo courtesy of Shane Hunter, Incident Commander, Missouri River Unified Command, Omaha.

The record-setting Missouri River floods in the summer of 2011 brought economic hardship and destruction to communities lining its path, closed roads and bridges, and suspended the normal daily activities of thousands of people. The flooding has also impacted or threatened a number of National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) along the river. Hardest hit appear to be the USS Hazard and the Captain Meriwether Lewis dredge, both of which found themselves once again floating in water.

The Hazard, located in Omaha, Nebraska’s Freedom Park, is one of the most intact and preserved warships remaining from World War II. It is one of two surviving Admiralclass minesweepers that could double as anti-submarine warfare and anti-aircraft ship. After service in the Pacific theater, the Hazard was decommissioned in 1946 and ultimately brought to its current location in 1971 as part of a Naval museum, now owned by the city.

Although located in a park adjacent to the Missouri River, the Hazard normally “floats” in a cradle of soil. The city regularly backfilled around the hull to combat erosion of the sandy and poor quality soil. When the Missouri began to rise this past spring, the city took numerous steps to preserve the Hazard and other historic resources at the park. Both the Hazard and the USS Marlin were securely moored down, and volunteers removed the Hazard’s mast and gangplank. While many artifacts and exhibits remained on board, the more valuable materials were taken off. A park volunteer contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was already in the state to assist with flooding issues. According to a July 15 press release from FEMA, that agency quickly coordinated with a number of other federal agencies including the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, Civil Air Patrol, and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Among other actions, the Coast Guard ferried volunteers across the floodwaters to check on the ships, until it was deemed too dangerous. The Civil Air Patrol took aerial photographs to assist the city in monitoring conditions.

By June 27 the Missouri River at Omaha measured over 35’ deep, 6’ above flood stage. The water completely flooded the park and floated the ship in several feet of water. Water was pumped out of the vessel and a small leak was found in a seal on one of the propeller shafts. The Hazard has shifted from its original location and of great concern was what the rapidly-flowing flood waters might have done to the vessel’s permanent cradle area, and what debris might have collected beneath it. In preparation for addressing the unknown, Park Maintenance Manager Brook Bench reported that the city has been consulting with the Navy and park volunteers to develop a plan of action once floodwaters recede. The National Park Service Midwest Regional Office and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park contributed information to the city regarding possible solutions.

Eighty miles downriver at Brownville, Nebraska, the Captain Meriwether Lewis found itself in similar circumstances. One of only a handful of surviving U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vessels built to control the Nation's inland waters, the Lewis is one of the best preserved examples of an inland waters cutterhead dredge in the United States. After 37 years of operation, the vessel designed to assist in flood control work was removed from the river in 1977 and functions as the Museum of Missouri River History, owned by the Meriwether Lewis Foundation. It sits in a specially excavated and diked basin at the river’s edge. Concrete capped pilings and steel Ibeams support the Lewis in a manner that recreates the appearance of floating. All appearances were removed in June and July. Brownville resident Jane Smith reported that the Missouri River ultimately measured over 44’ deep, and washed out one-third to one-half of the area levee. The river washed away sidewalks to the Lewis, along with the gangplank. The basin filled with sand and water inundated the surrounding park area. After the floodwaters lowered about four feet, the vessel appears to have settled back on its cradle. Foundation members identified and patched a hole in the hull. Repair work on the Lewis has utilized Americorps teams in the past, and Smith hopes that another team, for which they have already applied, will be able to address problems created by the flooding.

Man holding onto a log connected to machinery.
Volunteers pull Board of Public Works equipment back onto levee near Captain Meriwether Lewis Dredge NHL. Note that the water levels in the background have over-topped the levee.

Photo courtesy of Randel Smith.

In Sioux City, Iowa, the Sergeant Floyd, fared better. Also a rare surviving Corps of Engineers vessel, this survey and towboat was built as part of a comprehensive plan by the Federal government for flood control and improved navigation on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The Sergeant Floyd carried government supplies and assisted in dredging and flood control work. After a 1976 stint for service during the Bicentennial, the Floyd operated as a Corps museum in St. Louis before being transferred to Sioux City in 1982. Located within a park fronting the Missouri River, it now serves as the Sergeant Floyd River Museum and Welcome Center. Like the Lewis, it is a dry-berthed vessel that sits in an excavated basin.

Museum Manager Kathy Meisner reported that since June 1, the museum was “on defensive mode” to combat flooding. Although the community is protected by levees, the city had a 6.5’ high, 50’ wide berm constructed around the complex in which the Floyd is located, and plugged city storm drains. Other proactive measures included a two day effort to relocate 90% of the vessel’s exhibits to the city’s Public Museum. To protect wall murals that could not be removed, the museum continued to run the air conditioning in order to keep humidity levels low. Meisner concluded that the Floyd and Welcome Center were “doing ok” but the complex could not be reopened until flood waters recede.

Archeological NHL sites along the river appear to be generally unaffected, but the status of some of the lower-lying sites could not be confirmed until water levels drop. Upriver from Omaha, elevated sites on river terraces, such as Fort Pierre Chouteau, Huff, Menoken Indian Village, Big Hidatsa Village' and Fort Union were above flood damage, although bank erosion may be an issue. At Big Hidatsa Village, included within the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in North Dakota, the Knife River flowed upstream. The Knife River is a tributary of the Missouri and had backed up due to flooding. Although some portions of the park were impacted, the NHL site should be okay. As Chief of Interpretation and Cultural Resources Maureen McGee Ballinger pointed out, “these folks were river people,” and placed their communities in locations above the flood plain. Corps of Engineers Archeologist Rick Harnois stated that until the water recedes, the status of archeological NHLs for which the Corps have responsibility are unknown. All are now in the process of inspection, and Harnois noted that the Corps had previously stabilized several sites, including Vanderbilt and Crow Creek. Downriver, at Fort Osage in Missouri, flooding has had little impact on that county owned site. As the fort is located 84’ above the floodplain, Site Manager Steve Wilson reported that “the only impact on us are mosquitoes.”

The cause of all this activity was unusually heavy melt from the massive Rocky Mountain snowpack, combined with unexpected heavy rains that brought eight or more inches of additional precipitation to eastern Montana and Wyoming and the western Dakotas. As a result, the basin received nearly a year’s worth of rainfall by the end of May. It threatened to overwhelm the Missouri River basin reservoirs. By June, the Corps began releasing excess water from a series of six reservoirs at recordsetting flow rates. From Fort Peck Reservoir in Montana, releases increased from 35,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 50,000. Downriver, the numbers more than doubled. At the southernmost dam in South Dakota, Gavin’s Point, releases rose from 70,000 cfs (a record release in 2010) to 160,000, and were expected to continue well into August.

On June 18, President Obama declared the flood conditions in Nebraska a “National Emergency,” following this up on June 27 with a “Major Disaster” declaration for the southwestern Iowa border region. With these announcements, FEMA provided federal aid to areas struck by flooding. As of July 18, Federal emergency declarations on fourteen Nebraska and five Iowa counties bordering the river qualified for emergency assistance. Other sources of funding may be available from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. February 1 is the first of three deadlines for the National Preservation Fund. This fund provides two types of assistance to nonprofit organizations and public agencies: 1) matching grants from $500 to $5,000 for preservation planning and educational efforts; and 2) intervention funds for preservation emergencies. Details on these and other forms of funding assistance are found at:
http://www.preservationnation.org/resources/findfunding/nonprofitpublic-funding.html.

National Park Service funding is limited, but the Midwest Regional Office staff are available to provide technical assistance, and we maintain a list of grant sources available to all NHL owners and stewards.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 6, 2011, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Dena Sanford.

Last updated: June 22, 2018