Spencer Dam

This still image captured from a YouTube video posted by Kenna Sedivy shows the breach at the dam on the Niobrara River near Spencer, Nebraska.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday night it was increasing its releases at Gavins Point Dam near Yankton to levels not seen since the historic 2011 Missouri River flood.

The Corps’ announcement marked the fifth time it raised the flows in two days because of flooding. A major blow came Thursday with the breach of Spencer Dam, located south of Spencer, Nebraska, which plays a major role in controlling the Niobrara River’s flow into the Missouri River near Niobrara, Neb.

"Water releases from Gavins Point Dam will be increased to 90,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) … as unregulated inflows from the Niobrara and other watersheds continue to spill into the reservoir," the Corps said in a release Thursday night.

Gavins Point Dam releases were increased from 27,000 cfs to 32,000 cfs at midnight Wednesday. A second increase from 32,000 cfs to 37,000 cfs was made early Thursday morning, followed by an increase to 50,000 cfs and again to 60,000 cfs.

The Corps’ announcement represents the latest development in a storm cycle that has hit the Yankton region with about 3 inches of rain on top of snowfall and ice jams. As a result, many roads in southeast South Dakota and northeast Nebraska are considered impassable, and flooding has hit a number of communities both along and away from the Missouri River.

The problems started Tuesday night and Wednesday, when heavy rainfall created flood situations in Yankton and other communities. The second round came Thursday with snow and high winds.

On Thursday, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem opened the Emergency Operations Center in Pierre to provide assistance in disasters across the state. She said in a news release that she anticipated issuing a disaster declaration.

No travel was advised on roads and highways across South Dakota Thursday because of flooding and a massive blizzard.

In Nebraska, no travel was advised for the north central and northeast regions of the state.

Knox County Sheriff Don Henery posted an alert of the Spencer Dam’s breach, which endangered those living along the river and affected those living downstream.

"The Knox County Sheriff’s Office has been advised that the Spencer Dam has been compromised," Henery wrote. "We are trying to contact everyone along the Niobrara River to evacuate them. Please pass the word. Niobrara and Verdigre (Nebraska) Fire and Rescue are on stand-by."

The dam’s breach led to devastation for Niobrara, a town of 400 residents which had already relocated during its history because of Missouri River flooding. One report listed a number of businesses that were destroyed or seriously damaged in the western part of the community.

The South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT) has closed the Chief Standing Bear Memorial Bridge on the north end at Running Water, so the Nebraska (south) end of the bridge is also closed, according to Knox County, Nebraska, Emergency Manager Laura Hintz.

The flooding also left the communities of Niobrara and Verdigre without drinking water, according to Hintz.

"The West Knox Rural Water District had a pipeline from their well to Verdigre and surrounding areas, that ran under the Verdigre Creek, compromised. West Knox Rural water is working to fix the broken pipe and get it repaired," she told the Press & Dakotan.

"Niobrara had a water line break from one of their wells that has left them without water. At this time, access to the village of Niobrara is limited. Arrangements are being made to get drinking water to these two communities."

In addition, the flooding destroyed the old Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR) building at Niobrara, Hintz said. The building was located at the junction of Nebraska highways 12 and 14, with the NDOR having moved to higher ground on the east side of Niobrara, she said.

Ponca Tribe chairman Larry Wright declared a state of emergency Thursday for the traditional homeland at Niobrara as well as for members living in the affected areas of Norfolk, Nebraska, and Sioux City, Iowa.

"We continue monitoring the situation as we move forward with the flood as events unfold during the next few days," he said.

Wright noted the evacuation of tribal members at Niobrara and in the Norfolk area.

"We are currently housing people and providing shelter at our Norfolk campus and make sure our tribal citizens in the area know it’s available to them if they need that help and safety," he said. "If other people in the Norfolk community need a place to go, we’re open to them and will help them the best we can."

In Norfolk, about 8,000 residents were asked to evacuate because of concerns with the levee system. Norfolk Public Safety Director Shane Weidner described the evacuation area as running from Eisenhauer Road south to the Elkhorn River and from 7th Street to Victory Road.

Weidner encouraged self-evacuation where possible. Shelters are set up at Lutheran High Northeast and Bel-Air Elementary schools, he said.

Wright, the Ponca tribal chairman, said he looks forward to working with local, county, state and federal officials in the rebuilding effort.

In South Dakota, emergency managers and highway superintendents were dealing with roads that were covered with water, blocking access for emergency responders and other essential travel.

"Due to the large amount of flooding throughout Turner County, no travel is recommended unless absolutely necessary," Emergency Manager Brad Georgeson told the Press & Dakotan.

"The Turner County Highway Department is out of road barricades and the same goes for several townships. Water has risen enough in several areas to affect state highways in some areas. (We’re urging) extreme caution."

Turner County officials have resorted to borrowing road barriers from neighboring towns and counties, if any barriers are to be found, Georgeson said.

"The wind knocked down our ‘road closed’ signs. As soon as they put out some of the barriers, they’re tipped over sideways," he said.

"We’re doing a ‘hurry up and wait’ game. We had the highway department out rearranging signs. They were moving them farther out where the water had gone up, or they had completely pulled signs and moved them to more dangerous locations. Some townships have resorted to putting flags in the middle of their closed roads."

Most of the closed roads are township roads, followed by county roads, Georgeson said. The closed state road segments include Highway 44 west of Parker, Highway 44 west of Chancellor and Highway 19A south of Centerville.

Georgeson urged travelers not to go around barricades

"You don’t know what’s under the surface," he said. "You don’t know if there’s soil under the pavement and support under the bridges."

A self-service station has been set up at the county highway shed at Parker for residents to pick up sand and bags, with shovels provided for them to fill at the site, Georgeson said.

With the aftermath still ahead, this storm has been one for the history books, Georgeson said.

"This has been a weird cycle. This is similar to 2018 and 2014, and I’ve even heard it’s similar to 1984," he said. "One of the most common quotes I have heard is that people have never seen it flood before in certain areas.

"I’ve lived my entire life in Turner County and I would agree with all of them."


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The South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT) has closed the Chief Standing Bear Memorial Bridge on the north end at Running Water, so the Nebraska (south) end of the bridge is also closed, according to Knox County, Nebraska, Emergency Manager Laura Hintz.

(1) comment


The rivers are just reclaiming their bed.

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