Development nearly rebuilt after 2011 Missouri River flood

By RANDY DOCKENDORF
Missouri Independent

YANKTON, S.D. (AP) — For Doug and Linda Larson, the 2011 Missouri River flooding still affects their lives and property a decade later.

The couple owns and operates Larson's Landing, a riverfront development west of Yankton. Their original 84-unit rental park — both mobile homes and campers — was inundated from May-September 2011.

However, the clean-up and repair work has continued to this day.

"After 10 years, we're nearly done," Doug said. "Now, it's mostly maintenance. We've rebuilt just about everything. We're pretty well under control."

Doug said the family didn't hesitate to rebuild after the 2011 flood.

"Back then, people asked, 'What are you gonna do now?'" he said. "I told them, we're going to start again and redo it."

The historic flooding arose from a combination of large mountain snowpack and unusually heavy spring rainfall over a large portion of the upper basin, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The flooding continued for months, creating millions of dollars in damage across the basin, the Yankton Press and Dakotan reported.

"I can't believe it's been 10 years gone by already," Doug said. "We're finally just about rebuilt. It looks a little different, doesn't it?"

The Larsons pointed to the changes over the years — new utilities, roads, trees, parking pads and even playground equipment. No cleanup could begin until the water receded, meaning little major work could commence until 2012, Doug said.

"Really, it was the middle or end of September (2011) before the flooding ended," he said. "We did a lot of cleanup. The debris was mostly trees, and we had help with cleanup. Then we had to rebuild all the utilities. It was sad."

The expanded beach during this year's drought marks a sharp contrast from the flood water that ravaged most of the development during the 2011 event.

The sandbagging efforts at the time sought not only to keep out flooding but also to offer any bank stabilization, Doug said.

"If you (previously) saw the shoreline, it gradually sloped way out. After the flood, it dropped 14 feet straight down because of the bank erosion," he said. "Right out by the light pole, the sandbags were 7-8 feet high, and the water still went over it."

The surprise was not only the quick arrival of the flooding but also its massive power and duration, Linda said. The combination of factors made recovery much more difficult than any other disaster, she added.

"We had homes on the west side (of the development) that tipped over because the water was coming so fast," she said. "If you listened to the water rush by, it just roared."

Doug noted one unusual way that animals adjusted to the flooding.

"The water was coming here so fast that the beavers were eating the trees, gnawing and gnawing, and then the flood would come and take the trees down," he said. "The beavers were like, 'Well, I better go get another one.'"

For the Larsons, the 2011 flooding brought a double economic blow — not only the property damage but also the loss of their rental income from displaced residents and campers.

"Most of our business is really seasonal, and the flood hit right before Memorial Day and the start of our busy summer season," Doug said.

The Corps of Engineers gave notice when it was going to raise the releases, Doug said. Because of the rapidly rising river levels, the Larsons said they sometimes received a few hours' notice of a major increase in releases.

Besides the official notices, the Larsons said they could observe the rising floodwaters.

"It was Memorial Day, and I remember (our son) kept hearing the water coming up," Linda said. "We really didn't think when it started that it would keep coming up that high."

Officials told the family where to expect flooding, but the situation became much worse than anticipated, Doug said.

The Larsons were no stranger to flooding. Doug had owned the business since 1980, and he rebuilt after the 1997 flood that saw releases of 70,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) from Gavins Point Dam near Yankton.

Similar releases had come from Fort Randall Dam upstream at Pickstown, which also allowed for the inflow from tributaries before the river reached Gavins Point.

Larson chose to remain in business after the 1997 flood, rebuilding his property to withstand any more releases of that magnitude.

However, the Corps needed to release much higher volumes of water during the 2011 flooding, including 160,000 cfs — one million gallons of water per second — from Gavins Point Dam.

"I decided to rebuild so (flood damage) wouldn't happen again," he said at the time. "But that was for 70,000. Now, it's (160,000), and I don't see any way of protecting for that."

While state officials were initially dealing with flooding at Pierre-Fort Pierre, then-Lt. Gov. Matt Michels of Yankton led operations in the southeast part of the state.

As the Larsons dealt with the rapidly rising flood waters, word spread quickly of their situation. The couple was both stunned and grateful for the outpouring of volunteer support in sandbagging efforts.

"We didn't ask for any help, but we sure needed it," Doug said.

Linda was amazed at the arrival of help not only from Yankton but from the surrounding region. "We had about 500 volunteers down here. A lot of it was just word of mouth," she said.

Even the people being evacuated from Larson's Landing volunteered for sandbagging, Doug said.

"One of the good things was that it started three days before Memorial Day, so most of our campers were already in the park," he said. "They were able to pull their units out and then they started sandbagging. More and more, the word got out that they needed help out at Larson's Landing."

For three weeks, an army of residents, volunteers and the South Dakota National Guard built a 500-foot-long wall of 5,000 to 10,000 sandbags. Some of the sandbags were breached, but quick work helped stabilize the area.

Workers built a wall at least six feet high, which still wasn't enough to hold back the flood waters, Linda said. The arrival of water meant the exodus of residents in its wake, he said.

Eventually the force and duration of the floodwaters overtook the wall of sandbags, which became partially visible from a distance.

By the close of the effort, about 200,000 sandbags were used, Linda estimated. Of those remaining, some were buried and others disintegrated. Some sandbags still emerge from burial places, she said.

As the flooding encroached, the Larsons helped evacuate their property. "We had to displace several mobile homes out there. People lost their homes and the rest were displaced," Doug said.

During the 2011 flooding, the Larsons looked out at the submerged homes and the empty lots where recreational vehicles once stood. The inundated structures included their own home, with its orange shutters one of the few visible features at the time.

"Our home was right here," Linda said, pointing to the location that now serves as a community center for the park's occupants. "We couldn't stay in our house, and we couldn't even get to it because it was under water. When Doug finally did get there and was taking pictures, there was big, puffy mold in my beautiful house."

In the meantime, the Larsons lived in a camper on site while looking for other accommodations. They moved furniture to garages in town and boxed up possessions for storage units.

"We got another (home) above the flood plain, just up the street," Doug said. "But we would be sitting out front of our new house, and the water came within 10 feet of us. Linda was worried if we had to move again."

At the same time, Larson's Landing took another financial hit, Linda said. Because of the prolonged evacuation, the Larsons lost their entire summer season of rental income. The family did have flood insurance and received a Small Business Administration (SBA), the Larsons said, but many of their tenants didn't have flood insurance.

"This went on for 24 weeks. Usually, when you have a flood, it's three or four days and then you start cleaning up," Linda said. "This (flood) just kept going on and on. And we didn't have any (income) because we had to give the campers all their money back."

The Larsons also gave mobile home owners a subsidy to help cover their moving expenses, Doug said. Some mobile homes were totally ruined, Doug said, while he heard other units ended up as housing in North Dakota oil fields to meet a severe housing shortage for workers.

The utilities had been cut to empty homes in the development, Doug said at the time of the flooding. Some residents moved elsewhere, including a Yankton apartment, and others stayed with relatives in the aftermath.

About a month after the flooding started, only five homes and 15 recreational vehicles remained out the original 84 units.

Amidst the 2011 flooding, the Larsons checked out their deserted development on golf carts. They kept out intruders, and the evacuated residents came back on weekends to check their property. In addition, the Yankton County sheriff's office came out to the development to check on things.

Today, the park has regrown as people flock back in the rebuilt areas. The development currently has 93 campers and seven mobile homes.

This weekend, the Larsons expect 400-500 guests for the Fourth of July weekend. While they enjoy the park's resurrection, they also have taken valuable lessons from the flooding experience.

"One thing it taught us is humility because we had the cat's meow, and in three days, it was all gone," Linda said. "It really humbles you. When I think about all the people in the community who lost what they had, it makes me sad."

Doug also expressed gratefulness for the ability to come back.

"You found out how helpless you can be," he said. "You just pray and hope that some help comes along."