Residents of Hamburg in southwest Iowa aren't the kind of people who wait for others to fix their problems. So when the nearby Missouri River threatened to flood their community last summer, townspeople worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a levee that kept floodwaters at bay.
But when residents in the town of nearly 1,200 learned they would have to spend more than $1 million to tear down the levee — or raise $4.6 million, after the state agreed to chip in $1 million — to bring the raised levee within federal regulations, leaders decided to ask the world for help.
The result is a website — which can be found at www.hamburglevee.com — that implores visitors to contribute. If 1.5 million people were to contribute $3 apiece, the website says, the levee could be saved “for less than a latte.”
In the nearly two weeks the website has been up and running the city has collected more than $23,000 in mostly small donations from as far away as Indonesia, Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain said. The town is shooting to collect the money it needs by mid-December, but it could have until the end of March, depending on the progress of other federal projects.
The website includes video of more than 100 Hamburg residents dancing on Main Street to the song “Proud Mary” as part of their efforts to get publicity for their town's plight.
“Every now and then the little guy needs a helping hand,” Crain said. “We're not asking for our town to be bailed out. We're able to pay our bills. We are just unable to pay for this unexpected yet really important expense.”
Hundreds of thousands of acres of land were flooded along the Missouri River in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri last summer after spring rains and a heavy flow of melted mountain snowpack forced the Corps of Engineers to make massive releases from the river's upstream dams. In June 2011, floodwaters surged through failing levees a few miles south of Hamburg.
The corps and townspeople scrambled to pile 8 feet of earth onto an existing 11-foot-high, two-mile-long secondary levee in a matter of days to protect Hamburg — an effort that cost $6 million. Crain said she learned only a month later that the levee would have to be torn down if millions more were not spent to bring it within regulation.
The additional costs include at least $2.2 million for taller metal closure gates where the levee meets roadways and the cost of extensive soil tests to ensure the levee is stable.
With the city's funds depleted by its fight against the flood, Crain and others, including Hamburg City Councilman Kent Benefiel, began brainstorming a way to raise money to save the levee. It was Benefiel's family that came up with the idea of the flash mob-like street dance.
“We've spent $550 on this project so far,” Crain said. “We've had everything donated, and almost everyone in town has pitched in.”
That includes the local high school music teacher, who taught the street dance participants their moves, and a local owner of an information technology business, who served as cameraman and editor.
“It's gotten a lot farther than I thought it ever would,” Benefiel said. “It seems to be a cause that people can get behind.”
Benefiel said taking the 8 feet of dirt off the levee would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“It held up to 17 feet of water for 120 days,” Benefiel said. “It is completely insane to tear it down only to have to rebuild it again in the event of another flood.”
Kim Thomas, chief of emergency management for the Corps of Engineers' Omaha district, has worked closely with Hamburg officials on the levee and said the corps wants to help the Iowa town keep it.
Though the corps did most of the levee work, that does not mean it's necessarily solid enough to be declared a permanent fixture, Thomas said.
“We were in a race against time to get that levee up,” she said. “A typical levee project like that would probably take at least a year to complete.”
“There very well could be voids in that levee,” she said. “The last thing we want to do is have a life safety risk out there.”
The argument by many Hamburg residents, and even U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, that the levee proved itself by holding back massive amounts of water for months is misleading, she said.
“We didn't just build that levee and walk away,” Thomas said. “We had issues come up with that levee every day. We were constantly out there addressing one problem or another.”
Farmer Glen Stanzel was among about a dozen farmers and heavy-machinery operators from the Hamburg area who helped stymie the flow of floodwaters at primary levee breaks last summer to give the corps and townspeople time to build up the secondary levee.
Like others in the town, he wants to see the temporary levee made permanent.
He finds it unconscionable that the town might have to tear down the levee, then scramble to put up a new one if another massive flood were to threaten the town.
“The bottom line is we can't afford that again. Not just locally, but nationally,” Stanzel said. “This country is awash in debt. We already have the thing in place. Why tear it down?”
Stanzel said the argument that last year's flood was likely a once-in-a-lifetime event is not a reason to tear down the levee.
“Is this event going to happen again? They say it's not likely,” he said. “But that one last summer wasn't likely either.”
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