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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Wading through neck-high waters in Iowa, a husband implored his wife to keep going

Jake Clay helps remove items from his grandparents’ home after flooding in Sioux City, Iowa, on Monday, June 24, 2024. A weekend of severe flooding destroyed homes, inundated farm fields and left residents scrambling to evacuate in three Midwestern states. (KC McGinnis/The New York Times)

By Ann Hinga Klein and Mitch Smith

Wanda and Randy Bliek awoke Saturday to the sound of water lapping against the walls of their home in Rock Valley, Iowa.

The couple rushed to their pickup truck and drove onto the street, but surging water pushed them against the curb. Unable to open the truck doors, they said, they escaped through the windows and climbed out into the neck-high current gushing down their street.

For eight long blocks, they alternated between swimming and walking to safety while neighbors screamed for help from their roofs. At one point, Wanda Bliek, 65, told her husband she was not sure she could continue.

“I said, ‘Well, if you want to stay alive, we’ve got to do this,’” Randy Bliek recalled.

Rock Valley, a town of 4,000 people in northwest Iowa, was among the hardest-hit places in a weekend of severe flooding that destroyed homes, inundated farm fields and left residents scrambling to evacuate in three Midwestern states.

As a new week started, and as the floods retreated in some places, danger persisted. Along the Big Sioux River in North Sioux City, South Dakota, where the water reached record levels, a key railroad bridge collapsed late Sunday night. In southern Minnesota, a dam was at risk of failing Monday.

“These next few days are going to be tough,” Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota said, “and the next few months, to restore some of these homes and families back, are going to be difficult.”

The flooding followed days of heavy rain. With the ground already saturated, the runoff overwhelmed many creeks and rivers.

The Midwest has faced a range of weather extremes over the past few years, including record-breaking floods in 2019, persistent drought, and then relentless rainstorms this month. As climate change causes the planet to warm, such extremes will become more common, scientists say.

“As we see these chaotic climate events due to climate change increase,” Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota said, “we need to think about how we’re building back more resilient.”

The latest floods were continuing to challenge officials across the region Monday, with shifting river forecasts making it difficult to know how bad the flooding would be and when the worst would hit.

In Iowa, where hundreds of properties were destroyed, rivers were receding in some places by Monday afternoon. The Minnesota National Guard mobilized after as much as 18 inches of rain prompted evacuations. In South Dakota, river levels were starting to fall near North Sioux City, but towns like Yankton and Vermillion remained under threat.

The flood risk came on fast, with emergency crews working 24-hour shifts in some cases to evacuate residents in harm’s way and strengthen defenses against the rising waters. The National Weather Service said two South Dakota cities that experienced flooding, Sioux Falls and Mitchell, recorded their wettest two-day periods on record Thursday and Friday.

In North Sioux City, where some homes were destroyed Sunday night, a thick layer of murky brown water blanketed the city Monday. Trees were split in half. People in stained jeans and sweat-drenched T-shirts filled cans of gasoline at gas stations. Shelves at the local Walmart were bare. But if it had not been for last-minute efforts to raise levees near the town, officials said, the destruction could have been even worse.

“If we did not take the mitigation efforts that we took yesterday, much of North Sioux City itself would be underwater,” Jason Westcott, the emergency management director in Union County, South Dakota, said Monday.

Officials with BNSF Railway said the middle span of a rail bridge over the Big Sioux River in North Sioux City collapsed around 11 p.m. Sunday. Because of the flood conditions, the railroad said that it had stopped using the bridge before the collapse, and that trains were being rerouted.

Farther north, in Lincoln County, South Dakota, the state’s Department of Public Safety said that an 87-year-old man died while trying to turn around a utility terrain vehicle on a closed road where the shoulder had washed away.

In Blue Earth County, Minnesota, about 90 miles southwest of Minneapolis, officials warned Monday that the Rapidan Dam was “in imminent failure condition.”

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds said that the state’s Department of Natural Resources conducted 250 water rescues in a single day over the weekend. She estimated that at least 1,900 properties in the state were affected by flooding. The sheriff’s office in Clay County, Iowa, said Monday that a man died over the weekend after his truck was swept away by the flooded Little Sioux River.

“Businesses are shuttered; main streets have been impacted; hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities were evacuated,” Reynolds said. “Cities are without power, and some are without drinkable water.”

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Iowa on Monday, which makes federal funding assistance available for several counties in the state.

On Main Street in Rock Valley, Joane Rozeboom and her daughter, Britney Westra, watched as a tractor with a bucket and claw picked up mangled goods — cowhide furniture, drywall, insulation, flood-soaked clothing in plastic tubs — from outside their boutique, Copper Rose Apparel.

The shop had been a dream that they brought to life two years ago with help from their COVID-19 stimulus checks. As they looked at the destruction Monday, they said they would work to reopen the boutique.

“We’re like, yep, we’re doing it, and it’s going to be not as much work as the first time,” Rozeboom said. “But the more we dig, the more we find it’s still going to be a lot of work.”

Elsewhere in Rock Valley, where the retreating water left behind a swampy stench Monday that lingered in the 90-degree heat, the Blieks, the couple who struggled to reach safety Saturday, took in the damage at their house.

Mud coated a tangle of recliners, mattresses and end tables. It was a total loss.

But on a mantel in a lower level of the home, they found undisturbed the urn holding the ashes of their daughter, Halee, who died after a car accident last year at the age of 35.

“When we got here, I said, ‘Randy, we’ve got Halee,’” Wanda Bliek said. “It was the only thing I was really concerned about.”

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