River Rampage

Dave Tunge of Dakota Aerials captured this image of the Fleeg’s bridge on Old Highway 50 and the railroad bridge to the south skimming just above the record flood surge on the James River.

The James River was finally beginning to fall from its record-breaking levels throughout Yankton County Sunday afternoon, but it will be some time before the full impacts are known in the latest round of flooding.

The flooding came as a result of large downpours in the Mitchell area last week. Some areas recorded more than 10 inches of rain.

By Sunday evening, only one of the five road crossings of the James River — the Highway 50 bridge —remained open to traffic. Numerous road closures dotted the county as they did after March’s flooding event, shelters were open and officials were preparing for the task of taking stock of what has happened.

A Record Event

According to the National Weather Service, this weekend saw the James River at its highest levels in the area in recorded history.

At the Scotland gauge, the river crested at 22.24 feet around midnight Saturday morning, beating the old record of 20.5 feet (1984). By 6 p.m. Sunday, it had dropped to 20.7 feet.

At the Yankton gauge, the river crested at 27.3 feet Sunday afternoon, topping the old record of 24.3 feet (1984). It had dropped to 26.45 feet by early Sunday night.

Yankton County Highway Superintendent Mike Sedlacek told the Press & Dakotan that flooding is occurring at unprecedented levels throughout the area.

“Water levels are much higher than ever seen before,” Sedlacek said. “Walshtown Road and Mission Hill Road, I’ve been here 15 years and never seen it flood there. Talking with people who have lived here their whole lives, the only time they’ve ever seen it flood like that is in 1984”

Yankton County chairman Dan Klimisch told the Press & Dakotan that water levels are starting to drop, but it will be a slow drop in the coming days and weeks.

“Up north in Odessa Township by Stone Church, it’s already starting to drop,” Klimisch said. “At my family farm in Central Township south of (Highway) 46, it’s starting to go down. But we also have to realize there’s potentially more water coming from the rain up in Mitchell. That may level out and it might keep going down, but it’s going to be a long time before it goes down significantly.”

He said, in some ways, the current round of flooding hasn’t had the scope of impact that March’s flooding had, but in other ways, it’s been worse.

“This is pretty much isolated to the James River Valley, which is really fortunate,” he said. “It’s cut our county in half, basically — it’s very difficult to get from the north side of the county to the south side of the county, but at least it’s just isolated to that valley. If we would’ve gotten the precipitation we had in March, it would’ve been a bigger disaster. It’s more localized, but I believe that the damage is going to be more significant.”

Klimisch said he’s especially concerned for the county’s four bridges over the James River.

“They weren’t in very good shape to begin with,” he said. “This flooding is the worst flooding ever recorded on this river. There may be significant damage to those bridges.”

Yankton County Director of Emergency Management Paul Scherschligt told the Press & Dakotan that his crews have been busy throughout the weekend.

“We’ve got a crew going around door to door making sure everybody’s OK and if anybody has any needs,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of houses that have been surrounded by water and it’s done some damage to those houses.”

He said crews had counted at least 50 homes that have been impacted in the county, but was sure that number was probably higher.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers announced Sunday they are cutting releases at the Gavins Point Dam by 10,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 60,000 CFS and will host a teleconference today (Monday) to discuss the situation and its impact on the rest of the Missouri River Basin.

Closed Roads And Bridges

As was the case in March, a number of roads have been closed throughout the county.

As of midday Sunday, that list included:

• 431st Ave between North West Jim River Road and Stone Church Road;

• Stone Church Road between 431st Ave. and 436th Ave.;

• 436th Ave between North West Jim River Road and 295th Street;

• SD Highway 46 at the James River;

• North East Jim River Road at SD Highway 46 and Highway 81;

• SD Highway 81 at the James River;

• South West Jim River Road between SD Highway 81 and 303rd Street;

• North East Jim River Road between SD Highway 81 and 303rd Street;

• 303rd Street at (Johnson Bridge);

• Portions of South Jim River Road;

• Walshtown Road between 308th Street and 309th Street (near the WNAX tower);

• Fleegs Bridge on 309th Street;

• 446th Ave. is closed between Mission Hill to 309th Street

Of note are the four county bridges over the James River which, as of Sunday night, remained shuttered.

Sedlacek said reopening happens only under one condition.

“We will not reopen the Yankton County Jim River bridges until they are inspected,” he said.

While standard protocol has been to close the bridges once water starts touching the girders, the Fleeg’s Bridge closed for another safety concern — it was quickly becoming a tourist attraction of sorts.

“I didn’t feel it was proper to leave it open,” he said. “There was a lot of safety issues (Saturday) with Fleeg’s Bridge being open. A lot of people were stopping on the bridge and backing up traffic just to get out of their vehicles to take a picture. Or (there were) people walking on to the bridge to take pictures.”

Sedlacek did not have a timeline on when the bridges would be able to be inspected.

Over the last year, both the Johnson Bridge and Fleeg’s Bridge have undergone major corrective repairs to be able to keep them open to traffic.

Sedlacek said there’s no telling whether the flooding has exacerbated the situations of either bridge at this time.

“With the previous damages that the bridges have received, it does raise a little extra caution to be a little more cautious and make sure those bridges do get thoroughly inspected before they reopen,” he said.

However, some good news was emerging Sunday afternoon.

South Dakota Department of Transportation (SDDOT) area engineer Rod Gall told the Press & Dakotan that Highway 18 near Olivet had been reopened to traffic. However, Highway 81 and Highway 46 in Yankton remained underwater at their James River crossing points and were still closed.

“Once the water is about off of the road, we will remove the debris and evaluate the bridge and the road that was under the water,” Gall said. “If there is damage that has to be repaired, we will see if we can get it done by our maintenance or if we have to hire a contractor. Just by looking at the roads from the edge of the water, the damage looks minimal at this time. If the road looks good after the water comes off, we will clean it up and open it up.

He said hopes are to reopen Highway 81 in the next two days with Highway 46 following soon after.

Scherschligt said it’s important to avoid all areas that have experienced closures.

“Stay off the bridges because we’ve closed them for a reason,” he said. “With all that water pressure against them, we want to make sure they’re safe and nobody gets hurt.”

The same is true, he said, of closed roads throughout the county.

“Don’t drive around the barricades,” he said. “By going around the signs, you could get stuck, you could go in the ditch and now we’re taking other people and putting their lives at risk to come out and save you.”

Resources And Recovery

Scherschligt said a resource that was available to those affected by the flooding in March has been reactivated.

“We have 211 set up again,” he said. “Anybody with damage needs to call 211. There’s a questionnaire so we know where the damage is at. That way, when they register, we can come out and register them with the state.”

The Center in Yankton was also once again utilized as an American Red Cross shelter. Scherschligt said at least two families were using it as of Sunday afternoon and that a number of people who had alternate places to stay had been utilizing its food services throughout the weekend.

He added that Yankton County Search & Rescue has been called to at least one water rescue where a car had run into a ditch, but the occupants had escaped unharmed.  

Scherschligt said county officials intend to follow some of the same procedures they did during the flooding in March.

“Wednesday is the next (County) Commission meeting,” he said. “We’re going to be going in and asking for a declaration of disaster. We don’t have any dollar amounts put together. We were told by the state we don’t need to and (to) get that going because there’s probably going to be a lot of counties doing that.”

Klimisch said there are a number of groups deserving of praise for how they’ve stepped up in yet another flood emergency in Yankton County.

“We’ve got to give a lot of credit to all of the first responders, the Highway Department, Emergency Management, the sheriff, police and search and rescue,” he said.

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For an updated list of closures, visit http://ims.districtiii.org/closedroads/

Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.

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