Commissioners, MDC biologist reflect on year of flood recovery
The flood that ravaged Ozark County a year ago over the April 28-30 weekend “was terrible, terrible, awful,” Ozark County Presiding Commissioner John Turner said last week at the commissioners’ regular Monday morning meeting. “Hopefully, we won’t see anything like it in our lifetimes.”
But even if they don’t see anything like it again, it’s also unlikely many Ozark Countians will ever forget the scenes of devastation the flood left behind and the trauma many riverside residents experienced as the waters of the North Fork of the White River, along with other area streams and lakes, rose to heights never seen before.
Turner said he talked with one flood survivor who lost everything in the flood and now keeps his travel trailer hooked up to his pickup all the time so he can be “ready to roll” if another flood threatens.
As far as the river scenery goes, “the river has gotten wide, with big gravel bars you can play football on, and no lack of them,” said Turner.
The commissioners join Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologist A. J. Pratt in lamenting that there’s no longer much, if any, shade along the river – although Eastern District Commissioner Gary Collins put a positive spin on the situation by pointing out that a lack of trees eliminates the possibility of snakes falling into floaters’ boats.
“It looks like a bomb went off,” Pratt told the Times, referring to what he called the “destruction of the riparian corridor along the stream.”
With less shade, it’s still to be seen whether the river will experience “a significant increase in water temperature, which could affect the trout population,” Pratt said.
The North Fork is home to two stretches of acclaimed trout habitat designated “Blue Ribbon” and “Red Ribbon” sections. “During larger floods, the trout migrate out of their normal range,” Pratt said. After the big flood, they were seen as far upstream as Highway 76 in Douglas County, he said. They also got washed into the lake, and some got trapped in “scour holes” that opened up in the floodplain. When the water receded they were trapped there and died, he said.
Overall, MDC has seen “a big decrease” in the North Fork’s trout population, “but the numbers always come back,” Pratt said.
The flood caused increased erosion and a lot of changes to the North Fork’s channel. “A lot of sediment and gravel were deposited, and we will continue to see a lot of that in the future,” Pratt said, adding that the river’s ecosystem “is in flux.”
“The flood of last year was probably the most devastating event to affect the financial situation of the county since I’ve been alive,” said Western District Commissioner Greg Donley. He added that “it really took a toll on our sales tax tourism dollars,” and he believes it will take two to three years to fully recover. But that recovery may have begun. The commissioners said the county had a 23 percent increase in general revenue last month compared to March 2017. “We are still down 10 percent from last year, but we were down 20,” he said.
Collins reported that all of the flood-damaged bridges and slabs on the eastern side of the county have been repaired and about 25 percent of the road repairs are completed. A new concrete slab was recently poured to extend the approaches to the bridge on County Road 318 at Dawt. He hopes the project will decrease washout during future flooding.
Donley said around 25 percent of the roads on the west side are back to normal, but about half of the flood-damaged bridges and low-water crossings still need to be fixed.
Working with FEMA over the past year has had its challenges, he said.
“It started good, and we got a few funds for work completed, but then there were some things that changed,” said Donley, adding that he has “worked seven disasters, and this has been the most complicated as far as getting the right paperwork to them.”
He said that, in the past, the county has been directed to submit a cost estimate to FEMA for repairs then FEMA has sent representatives to confirm whether the estimate is accurate. Next, the commissioners have signed off on the project using the online grants portal. And finally FEMA approves the project.
This time around, the FEMA representatives recommended that the commissioners raise their cost estimate for the county’s west-side repairs, so they did, and then started planning the repairs accordingly. However, FEMA later said the representatives who recommended the higher estimate were not actually qualified to do so. The agency said the county would have to cut back its estimate because the requested amount of material was more than was necessary to return the roads and bridges to pre-flood condition.
FEMA threatened an intense audit if the county tried to push for the higher amount, so Donley decided not to dispute FEMA to prevent progress from slowing down. As a result, instead of the expected 204,000 tons of gravel for road repairs, the western district can only count on FEMA funds for about 80,000 tons.
“All roads will get some [gravel] but not as much,” said Donley. “It kinda leaves egg on my face, but I’ve had it before.”
At a recent meeting, Turner and Collins learned that ninety $99 million has been designated for hazard mitigation in Missouri through community development block grants. If the county is able to secure any of that funding, it will be able to go beyond FEMA’s scope of restoring roads and bridges to pre-flood condition and actually make improvements that will help reduce damage from future floods, the commissioners said.
In the meantime, they say they’re eagerly awaiting the two new dump trucks they have purchased so they can finish the work quicker and move on to other non-FEMA projects.
The commissioners have asked state officials and congressional representatives for help in improving or expanding public river accesses on the North Fork. After James Bridge was swept away in the flood, Missouri Department of Transportation quickly rebuilt a new bridge on the PP Highway site over the river. But the new structure took away what had traditionally been a public access below the bridge, even though it was on private land.
When Dawt Mill, a short way downstream, announced last year it would no longer allow floaters in private vessels to take out at its boat ramp, that left the Patrick Bridge access on H Highway as the last public take-out point before Tecumseh, which is several hours’ float downstream. And the flood-damaged Tecumseh access is closed to vehicle traffic as it undergoes major repairs that aren’t expected to be completed until 2020. Which means anyone taking out a canoe, kayak or raft there has a long, difficult carry to get the craft to a vehicle, which must be left on the shoulder of Highway 160 at the Tecumseh bridge.
When Pratt was asked about the possibility of opening another access between Patrick Bridge and Tecumseh, he said MDC has “nothing in the works.” The department only buys land from “willing sellers,” he said, and usually waits for sellers to approach MDC with an offer, which then has to be approved by the conservation commission, and, of course, depends on that year’s budget.
Although he was noncommittal about such an occurrence happening, he said MDC is “always open to suggestions and opportunities.”
Pratt expressed thanks to the public for the river cleanup efforts that have occurred during this past year of recovery said MDC appreciates the help and general concern for the river.