HAMBURG, Iowa — This southwest Iowa town's long fight to save the levee that protected it from flooding in 2011 officially ended Friday.
The Hamburg City Council voted 3-0 to lower the levee just west of town to its pre-flood height.
The mood was quiet as the council cast its vote. The only people present during the official part of the meeting were the council members, city clerk, mayor and two reporters.
“None of us wanted to do that. The levee held,” said Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain.
The city will take the levee down to 11 feet; it is now about 19 feet tall. Work is expected to begin by May 1.
Local people had fought to save the hastily put up levee — even posting an online video of townspeople dancing — but were unable to raise the more than $5.5 million needed to bring it within federal regulations.
City officials had decided earlier this week to downsize the levee after meeting with officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Federal officials had said that for the levee to stay at its current height over the long term, new metal closure gates should be installed and tests were required for stability and dirt compaction.
The levee stretches for nearly two miles along the west side of Hamburg and was built in the late 1990s to protect the town from floodwaters from a drainage ditch.
In June 2011, volunteers and the corps piled dirt on top, raising it 8 feet, amid concerns about a levee protecting the area from the rapidly swelling Missouri River.
That levee ended up failing in spots, and waters pushed against the modified levee next to Hamburg for 120 days, much of that time only a few feet from overtopping.
Fremont County officials have estimated that the southern half of the town of about 1,200 would have flooded if not for the higher levee.
The city wants to reduce the levee by July 1 and return the 198,000 cubic yards of dirt to two nearby farmers. That will allow those farmers to put a crop on land that has been fallow since 2011. The city has rented that land since 2011, paying the farmers $22,500 in total.
Shrinking the levee will cost more than $1 million. While Hamburg will pay the bill, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the city 75 percent of the cost.
The State of Iowa will kick in an additional 10 percent. The town may have to borrow about $150,000 to pay its part of the tab.
The $52,000 raised by the video — showing townspeople dancing to the Ike and Tina Turner version of “Proud Mary” with Hamburg-specific lyrics — will help.
“That's $50,000 we won't have to borrow to put our dike back to the way it was,” said Kent Benefiel, a City Council member. “To a big city, that's nothing. But to us, that's a year's worth of payments.”
Said Crain: “We had our win, and our win is we saved the town. I thought we could win this one too.”
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