SDSU alumni work to record ‘historic’ disaster

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Editor’s Note: This story was prepared during the 2011 Newspaper Institute sponsored by the South Dakota High School Press Association. Nine high school students spent a week at South Dakota State University learning the basics of putting a newspaper together. See more of their work at sdpressinstitute.wordpress.com

By Amanda Siefken/Lincoln High School

The cities of Pierre and Fort Pierre, S.D., are both struggling with flooding and water overflowing the Missouri River.

The Oahe Dam just north of Pierre is releasing water at a rate of up to 160,000 cubic feet per second, and no parts of the river or its banks are capable of holding those massive amounts of water.

More than 2,000 people have already been displaced from their homes and will not be let back in until that water has passed. Once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers realized how much water it was dealing with, levees were built surrounding the river and protecting the city. These levees are six feet tall and miles long down the banks of the river. The levees have, and are, still saving a majority of the city. Water is slowly being released from six dams along the river, making people begin to wonder if the pressure from the water will cause damage to the dams or the levees.

Roughly 700 National Guard members were deployed to the area to fill more than 3 million sandbags. FEMA was also called in and three helicopters are constantly patrolling the river to keep people safe. Volunteers have played a large role in protecting the capital from more massive flooding.

Two former students from SDSU are working at the local newspaper. Chris Mangan and Ruth Brown both grew up in Pierre and after graduating applied for jobs at The Capital Journal. They have been writing articles on the flood for more than a month and both say that the most shocking thing coming from this is the massive amounts of water leaving the dam each day.

“We feel like we are the source of bad news after bad news,” Brown stated when explaining what it’s like to be a journalist in the middle of the flooding. “You wanna help but you can’t.”

However, both Brown and Mangan have worked to fill sandbags after writing stories all day about the disaster. They’ve both observed many acts of simple kindness like people bringing food and water to residents and National Guard soldiers working to save parts of Pierre.

Mangan said it’s difficult to cover the flooding when it takes people away from trying to protect their homes.

“I’m taking a couple minutes away from them that they could spend sandbagging,” he said.

Though sales of the paper have more than doubled due to the flooding, the toll it will take on Pierre is extreme. Water will continue to be released throughout August making the long-term damage even worse. The total costs are expected to be in the millions, Brown said.

The flood is being labeled a 100-year flood, which means the water is not going away any time soon in the future.

“It’s a part of history,” Brown said. “It’s the biggest disaster South Dakotans will ever see.”