Lt. Gov. Matt Michels� second home for much of June has been Dakota Dunes.
That is, until heavy rains hit the Missouri River basin earlier this week, forcing him to view potential new flood worries at places upriver, including Yankton, Pierre and other points.
�I was in Yankton last night looking at what was happening,� Michels said at a press conference held in the parking lot of Liberty National Bank in Dakota Dunes Friday afternoon.
The bank has been doubling as the city�s Emergency Operations Center as historic record snow pack in the mountains of Montana and heavy spring precipitation across the Midwest prompted the U.S. Corps of Engineers to release record amounts of water, beginning the last week of May, from reservoirs in North and South Dakota.
U.S. Sen. John Thune met up with Michels at the emergency operations center Friday.
�I was down here a couple weeks ago as they were building levees and trying to prepare for this event, and I wanted to visit again to get another perspective on this situation,� the senator said. �Obviously, a lot has changed since then.
�It�s great to see the levees holding; there is a tremendous amount of work that has been done � great work has been done,� Thune said. �We�re hoping for the best and obviously preparing for the worst, and it�s a great tribute to everybody that�s been involved.�
Releases from Gavins Point Dam in Yankton were slowly increased to what the Corps thought would be the needed maximum � 150,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). It turns out that estimate was wrong; following heavy rain across central and eastern South Dakota last week and early this week, the output of water through the dam was increased to its present level of 160,000 cfs.
�I had not been down here for a few days, especially with our rain events,� Michels said. �I had been back and forth to Pierre, and was in Yankton last night, looking at what was happening. Frankly, I was pretty concerned about what 160,000 cfs would be do doing to the levee here, having seen it constructed in its entirety over the last three or four weeks.�
Michels� attention has been stretched from Pierre, to Yankton, where he lived and practiced law for years before being elected lieutenant governor in 2010, to his hometown of Vermillion, and to Dakota Dunes.
�On Memorial Day, I was in Yankton, assisting with our emergency management team all throughout the southeast,� he said. �What we did when these increases came up is immediately contact the communities in the region to see if they needed more sandbagging.
�In the Vermillion area, I know they have been in contact about the intakes relative to the water, and I don�t have a recent update,� Michels said, �but I know there was a request from the people down in Ponderosa wanting some technical assistance. We asked for the Corps to take a look at that, as well.�
He was taken by boat on the river near Dakota Dunes earlier Friday afternoon to get an up-close look at the levee system. �I�m pleased to report that it is holding up very well,� he said. The emergency team and local citizens have responded thoroughly to the new challenges caused by recent rains. Water that has collected behind the levees is being pumped out, and several homes have had electric service restored, allowing their owners to pump water out of the dwellings.
�We are encountering a lot of groundwater from not only people pumping, but from the rains,� he said. �But this is a situation that is being handled very well. I was very impressed.�
There are no signs of the flooding letting up any time soon. There also are more and more questions being raised about what the future may hold. Michels and Thune admitted that many of the inquiries are impossible to answer.
�The bigger issues are if there are going to be any future increases (from the dams). I�ve been asked that quite a few times; the Corps has said they aren�t anticipating it,� Michels said, �but it�s really all going to be subject to what happens with the rain.�
�There are lots of questions, and I know that people are frustrated,� Thune said. �They want answers about the management practices. Clearly those issues are going to be addressed and dealt with at some point.�
Corps officials have been keeping a close watch on the snowmelt in the higher elevations in Montana. �They�ve said that it is going at a relatively good pace. They are watching, obviously, the inflows, and are prepared for it,� Michels said. �The only thing that�s the wildcard is various rain events.�
Thune recently met with officials from both the Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
�My impression is that FEMA is prepared to help the local communities. All of the protective measures that have been taken, we hope, are going to be eligible for reimbursement from them on a matching basis,� Thune said. �I know some of these communities are strapped already, and we�ve had questions about the amount of assistance. FEMA made it very clear that if they have estimates about the work progress reports, they should be submitting those.�
FEMA can also loan funds to communities �to help with some of these expenses until full assessments are made and they are able to come to final conclusions about what can be covered.�
Thune is also receiving many inquiries from South Dakotans about flood insurance-related issues.
�Anybody who purchased flood insurance, irrespective of the flood in progress trigger date of June 1, needs to go through the process, submit a claim, and have an adjustor come out,� he said. �FEMA made it very clear that they should do that, and there may be other flood-in-progress dates coming. Some of these flood events have more than one trigger date.�
Thune believes that a thorough review must be made of the Master Manual used by the Corps to manage South Dakota�s system of mainstem dams and reservoirs.
�There are going to be a lot of issues concerning that to address and perhaps modify going forward,� he said. �They think that this is an event that will change the parameters they use in terms of the decisions they make on how to release and keep water levels in the reservoirs going forward.
�There�s going to have to be an accounting,� Thune said. �I think the Corps of Engineers is going to have to answer questions, obviously, regarding when they made their decisions and why they made their decisions. They will acknowledge today that the Master Manual that they use to govern this system sets targets and sets ranges when it comes to releases. I think they are looking forward, after this is all over and done with, to the opportunity to answer some of the questions and to work with us to modify the Master Manual so that this doesn�t happen again in the future.�
The presence of Michels and Thune in Dakota Dunes Friday coincided with a shift in control of the measures still ongoing to protect the city from the high flows of the Missouri River.
�We�re transitioning from the Level 3 team from the state to local control,� said Steve Long, the incoming public information officer, hired by Dakota Dunes. �We will still have state teams here that will rotate in and out as they complete their missions, but I�ll be more of a long term public information officer as we work through the different stages. While I�m being paid by the Dunes, I�m also representing southeastern South Dakota.
�As things have stabilized to a degree, we�re going to be handling things more on a local basis, with access to and assistance from state and federal resources,� he said.
The South Dakota National Guard, the office of the governor and the U.S. Border Patrol will still have a presence in Dakota Dunes.
�We�re still going to have access to some of those resources,� Long said. �It�s just that the management of those resources is now going to be handled locally as opposed to having a state team here to do that for us.�
Michels said only one thing is certain when it comes to the behavior of the Missouri River in South Dakota this year.
�What�s predictable is � this is unpredictable,� he said. �We can�t be complacent, and I think everyone knows that we just need to keep ourselves safe. A lot of this is in God�s hands, in the sense of how much more rain may or may not come.
�We have to be vigilant,� Michels said. �This is the beginning of what is going to be a long flood fight.�