Pierre: Five Years After The Flood

"We see it as a triumph, something sort of a battle or a war that we fought and won"

Around this time five years ago, South Dakota saw an incredible amount of rainfall in a very short amount of time.

Concerns began to rise, as did the water levels on the Missouri River. And in a matter of days, many South Dakota communities found themselves under water. The Missouri River flood of 2011 caused more than $580 million of damage across the Midwest.

A significant amount of that in South Dakota’s capital city, where a newly elected governor found himself knee-deep in a crisis he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to rise above.

“I had only been governor five months when the Army Corps of Engineers called. It was May 24,” said Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

That May 24, 2011 call was to let Gov. Daugaard know there would be “considerably” higher flows along the Missouri.

“Threatening outflow,” Daugaard recalled.

Record snowfall in the Rockies and heavy spring rain across the Missouri River basin swelled the river, forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to release water from dam at record pressure.

“The previous record in the 50 years the dams had been in place was 60,000 cubic feet per second,” said Daugaard.

At the Oahe Dam, water came gushing at more than 150,000 cubic feet per second. The powerful discharge – of more than million gallons per second – tore through the dam gates with roaring force, drawing hundreds to capture the unprecedented sight.

“Everybody was out looking at it, and got baths out of it,” said Pierre resident Marlin Johnson. “I decided to stand out there, and got all wet.”

And while mesmerizing, the effects downstream were devastating.

“The water was just massively roaring over this area,” said Pierre mayor Laurie Gill. “There was no causeway here. It was gone.”

Pierre’s iconic causeway to LaFramboise Island, once a hotspot for tourists and community events, was completely washed away.

“It just mangled it and tore it up and it looked like the surface of the moon,” said Gill.

Fast forward five years, and the causeway is completely new again. As is much of the city that was once underwater.

“I think we see it as a triumph, something sort of a battle or a war that we fought and won,” said Gill.

And while the battle with the water is over, lingering questions and original frustrations with the Army Corps of Engineers remain.

“I don’t believe them, everything that they have to say, anymore. I don’t believe them,” Pierre resident Debbie Miller told KDLT News in 2011. One day it’s, “Yeah, we’re at 150” and now, all of a sudden, it’s 160. I’m not going to believe them once it starts going down.”

Could the flood have been prevented? Did the corps wait too long to open the dams? To some, including then-Gov. Mike Rounds, the answer is absolutely.

“We’re not going to accept anymore just passing the buck an making excuses about  why they can’t do their job,” now-U.S. Sen. Rounds told KDLT News after a March hearing in North Sioux City.

But to Gov. Daugaard, the corps did the best they could, and the entire process is a lesson learned on how to better prepare for excess water.

“There has been some conversation with the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal partners about implementing more monitoring stations, and South Dakota is willing to support that,” Daugaard said.

The Governor said in the years since the flood, Pierre has implemented a new storm sewer system to help control flooding. And just this year, the state appropriated significant money to measure the downstream area of the Sioux River watershed –  which is affected by water flows of the Missouri River – to help predict and prevent flooding in the future.

Tuesday night on KDLT News at 10, we’ll take a look at how the Dakota Dunes community dried off and rebuilt after cresting river water forced hundreds out of their homes – and off the course.