Bringing it all back home

The town where I worked for more than two years out of college, until eight months ago, found itself back in the news today – ironically for an event that had never occurred while I was there despite writing about its possibility for two springs in a row.

Pierre, South Dakota – the state capital – is built around a bend on the Missouri River, right below the massive Oahe Dam. The dam was built several years after a devastating 1952 flood deluged the town (and its smaller neighbor across the river, Fort Pierre) with flood control as one of its major purposes. It worked well – while spring snowmelt caused flooding in other parts of the state over the past half century, Pierre never saw anything more serious than a bit of high water in 1997.

The Missouri River flows south from the Oahe Dam, located five miles upriver from Pierre, South Dakota, on Aug. 8, 2008. (Photo by David Montgomery)

That’s about to come to an end. Heavy rainfall in Missouri tributaries last week is rushing down the river, and the Army Corps of Engineers is prepared to open wide the Oahe Dam floodgates to pass the water downstream. That means water in Pierre and Fort Pierre is going to rise up higher than it’s been since the dam was built – high enough to engulf up to 500 homes in the two communities.

(My apartment in Pierre was located high up on the hill, safe from just about any flooding, with the possible exception of the dam blowing up and unleashing the full 29 cubic kilometers of Lake Oahe on Pierre at once. Not that I ever pondered what would happen in that scenario…)

Rapid City (which had an upstream dam massively enlarged after its own devastating flood in 1972) is far from the Missouri, but I dug out my address book of Pierre contacts today to cover the story for the Rapid City Journal.

It was an interesting experience, dialing up cell phones I often hadn’t called in nearly a year. One person answered the phone with, “David? Are you still alive?”

But I also was a little jealous that this big news story didn’t happen until after I left town. My story is fine, but my old paper, the Pierre Capital Journal, seems to be going at the story whole hog – as, indeed, they should. There’s something thrilling about running around with a camera, camcorder and voice recorder, trying to get the facts and color for a story along with photos and video to go along with it, only to go back to the office and write and edit the whole thing before the day is done.