HEARTLAND FLOOD: Senators seek answers from Army Corps of Engineers at Iowa meeting

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GLENWOOD, Iowa (WOWT) -- With parts of Southwest Iowa still underwater, management of the Missouri River was under fire Wednesday at a hearing in the hunt for a high-water fix.

In the wake of unprecedented flooding across the Midwest, a hearing on the Army Corps of Engineers' management of Missouri River flooding drew a packed house in Glenwood, one of the areas hit hard by high water.

The hearing would ordinarily have unfolded in Washington but it found its way to the periphery of the lingering flood waters in Glenwood.

Four U.S. Senators including Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley grilled the Army Corps of Engineers on its response to the historic heartland flood while much of the discussion looked toward how to prevent a disaster like this from happening again.

Hamburg is another town paying the price. Mayor Cathy Crain said, “Our fears were realized when over 11 feet of water captured our town. One-hundred-sixty-nine of 560 homes, 88 percent of our businesses and two-thirds of our town were underwater."

Mayor Crain said floodwaters went into places that had never been seen before, citing a required levee teardown when she says there wasn't enough money to keep it up.

This was one of many stories shared at the field hearing chaired by Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst. She was joined by fellow GOP Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Jerry Moran of Kansas. In addition the hearing drew Democratic Senator and 2020 presidential hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand.

The Army Corps of Engineers told attendees that at least 32 levee systems were completely underwater along with more than 100 breaches from Council Bluffs to the Kansas City area.

Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, with the Corps of Engineers, said, “The cost to repair each of those breach sites is anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to tens of millions of dollars."

The Corps says it couldn't have prevented the disaster that took lives and homes.

Now the questions turn to how to prevent this from happening again.

In remarks prepared in advance of the hearing, Grassley noted: "Breached, overtopped, or compromised levees span hundreds of miles on the Missouri River in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas. It is estimated that the Corps may need $10 billion to make repairs to the federal system. That figure does not include those levees not in the federal program nor does it address the need for higher or better structures."

He further stated, "I have heard from many Iowans about the unresponsive Corps and the lack of communication with locals about the floods. After the 2011 floods, some communications were enhanced. However, we need to find additional ways to communicate potential flood risks."

Sen. Grassley's full statement can be found here.

Sen. Ernst prefaced the hearing with a statement, reading in part: “As Iowans continue to recover from the devastating floods, we need answers to the critical question of how best to manage our rivers and water infrastructure,” said Senator Joni Ernst. “This hearing will bring together officials from the Army Corps and local leaders and stakeholders to examine what happened over the last few weeks and discuss how we can prevent this kind of destruction from happening again.”

Click here for Sen. Ernst's statement.

During the hearing itself, Sen. Grassley cut to the chase saying, "Iowans want and deserve answers."

Sen. Ernst spoke to the urgency of action saying, "This is not a past event. This is still happening."

Officials with the Corps said flood control and protecting human life are their top priorities anytime flooding is imminent along the Missouri River.

The Corps' John Remus says the agency that manages the dams along the Missouri River could not have prevented the flooding along the river this spring because of the large amount of water that flowed into the river downstream of the dams.

But critics of the agency say the other priorities for the river, such as protecting endangered species, seem to work against flood control.

Farmer Leo Ettleman said the Corps should have made significant changes to its operating manual after the historic 2011 floods, but neither the Corps nor Congress took action.

Ettlemen says the kind of flooding the area saw this spring will continue unless changes are made.

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