Historical Vignette: Snow, Rain, and Drought

Published March 19, 2015

Snow, Rain, and Drought

Snow, Rain, and Drought: graphic restoration by Al Barrus

In the winter of 1948-1949, three prolonged blizzards struck the Missouri basin . The first began on 18 November 1948, the second on 2 January 1949, and the third on January 25. The storms isolated railroad lines, highways, towns, ranches, and livestock. The snow stood three feet deep on the level and reached almost three times that at Sundance, Wyoming. Between the blizzards came warm weather and chinooks. The warm winds melted the driven snows which then froze with each icy wind out of the north. Temperatures dropped as low as 32 degrees below zero at Newcastle, Wyoming. Continually rising snow drifts worsened the isolation of towns, farms, and livestock. The situation was grim.

Many farm and ranch families had been cut off since November, and their stocks of food were vanishing. The wind rolled down from Canada and buried the snow fences and the roads in snow. Desperate farmers watched the skies. Ranchers feared for their herds. Lambs and calves, dropped by weakened, starving mothers, would die by the thousands in the spring. The Governors of Nebraska, Wyoming , and South Dakota worked their highway departments overtime to keep the roads open. Their National Guard units struggled against the snow until men, equipment, and money became exhausted. Light aircraft dropped food and medicine to some families.

During the first half of February, very high winds and more snow swept across the Great Plains. The storm hit three-quarters of North Dakota, most of Nebraska, South Dakota, and eastern Wyoming. In Nebraska, the National Guard and the American Red Cross had begun relief efforts in early January. As the situation grew critical, the Guard-operated the airfields at Alliance and Norfolk, Nebraska, in support of this work.

Union Pacific Railroad snow blower

In Wyoming, the Guard also worked with the Red Cross. The Guard rescue teams were built around the small tracked personnel carrier called the weasel. Essentially an enclosed jeep with tank treads, the weasel was light, fast, and built for operation in mud, snow, and rough terrain.

By the end of January, all five of the Districts in the Missouri River Division had been alerted for possible emergency action. The bulk of the work fell on the Omaha and Denver Districts, where the snow blew. Garrison District became involved later, and the Kansas City and Fort Peck Districts stood by to assist with personnel.

On 29 January 1949, a telegram from Lieutenant General Stephen J. Chamberlin's 5th Army Headquarters in Chicago activated the 5th Army's disaster relief plan. Brigadier General Lewis A. Pick, the Missouri River Division Engineer, commanded Disaster Force Snowbound. Colonel Lewis W. Prentiss, Omaha District Engineer and second in command, already had functioning area offices in his District. When the Governors and President Harry Truman declared certain parts of the District as disaster areas, Prentiss ordered his officers, supervisors, and mechanics into the field to set up more area and subarea offices.

On the night of January 29, officers from the 5th Army Headquarters arrived to strengthen Prentiss' forces. Twenty-five Engineer officers from Fort Belvoir, Virginia , also flew in. By Monday morning, January 31, area offices operated in Ainsworth, Nebraska, and Pierre and Rapid City, South Dakota,

5th Army opening road to stranded town

with Corps officers contacting local disaster relief committees or county commissioners. The original area of the operation involved northwestern Nebraska and South Dakota. Within 5 days, all local equipment and efforts were coordinated under the Engineers. District personnel used their familiarity with local contractors to get civilian equipment into the field . By Tuesday, the operation was well underway. Workers had rescued 6,853 people and 46,000 head of cattle and had cleared 175 miles of roads.

Rear Admiral S. Cary Jones, Commandant of the 9th Naval District, assisted with communications. Although civilian telegraph and telephone lines withstood the blizzards well, Pick and Prentiss had to be certain of dependable radio communication. Jones' sailors helped create a radio network manned by personnel from all the armed services. Naval reservists from Omaha, Lincoln, Denver, and Cheyenne operated stations at Ainsworth and North Platte, Nebraska, and at Rawlins and Cheyenne in Wyoming. Sixty-eight "ham" stations mobilized as a backup network and reported daily to Omaha.

The key to Operation Snowbound's organizational success was the long experience of the Corps and the District in working with contractors. As the heavily hit area expanded to include Wyoming, Pick and Prentiss had their people engage even more contractors and equipment and arranged for other men and machines to stand by.

Pick and Prentiss coordinated the actions of Federal, State, county, local, and Red Cross organizations. The Engineers and their contractors cleared roads and railroads while local officials and the Red Cross tended to the immediate needs of families. In the field, problems were met as they arose. People in the area and subarea offices depended on the Omaha District for logistical support but moved quickly with the local residents as guides and advisers.

Nebraska National Guard, Omaha World Herald photo

Liaison and coordination ran along organizational lines. Area officers worked with the Governors, and subarea offices worked with local officials and disaster committees. In many cases, the subarea offices cooperated with each other to meet conditions that transcended their boundaries. The disaster committees provided the local knowledge and abilities needed to direct the Engineers' relief efforts toward the most threatened communities and families.

Planning and speed were critical elements of the battle. The Engineers assigned priorities to roads and people for two reasons: communications had to be kept open and people who were near freezing or starving had to be brought out or resupplied. A blizzard plan, similar to a battle plan, was devised. Objectives were established, and Corps-contractor teams constantly watched in case any communities were cut off by the snow.

All fiscal matters in connection with the operation were handled by the comptroller offices in the Division and the District. Purchasing and contracting officers signed agreements with contractors onsite, and uniform rental arrangements were made. The Adjutant General of the State of Nebraska leased 300 pieces of construction equipment before the Federal operation began. The machines and contractor personnel were integrated into Operation Snowbound and compensated at Federal rates. Money for the operation came from the flood control and rivers and harbors accounts of the various Districts.

As great quantities of equipment were gathered on the night of February 3, Pick's forces took shape. Five Engineer and 10 ordnance maintenance teams went out to care for the hundreds of pieces of military equipment. These mobile teams operated around the clock. Local contractors performed their

Food and supplies arrive for stranded families, World-Herald photo

own maintenance. With reserve equipment held outside the blizzard area, the collected forces began full-scale operations the next morning.

Movement of men and equipment proved to be extremely difficult. No prominent landmarks were visible, and some of the roads shown on maps did not exist. Many bridges proved inadequate for the heavy equipment, and rescue teams had to depend on local guides. Light aircraft landed on the ridges of the wind-cleared Sand hills but sank through deep snow in other places. The aircraft's mobility and ability to see and report became invaluable.

District personnel struggled mightily against the snow. The Engineers plowed roads parallel to the direction of the wind and made wide sloping cuts through the snow. They also cleared drifts and roads that closed behind them. Sometimes splinters of ice blew in their faces; on other occasions, granular snow, as fluid as giant sacks of marbles, bogged down their equipment.

The Air Force assisted at Rawlins, Casper, and Douglas, Wyoming. The Air Training Command flew in helicopters for rescue work, but severe winds grounded the choppers. Aerial photographs provided by the Air Force helped establish reference points and served as charts when topographical maps became useless because of the snow cover.

Pick wanted the people of the basin to have some means of signalling aircraft. The standard Air Force system of spreading panels of cloth on the ground was too complex. Residents were advised to burn old auto or tractor tires if they needed help. Slow-burning tires produced a great deal of highly visible black smoke.

10th Air Force flying boxcar being loaded with hay - U.S. Army Photo

The 10th Air Force had been active on relief missions before the Engineers received orders to take action. The 10th began Operation Hayride on 11 January 1949 to airdrop food and supplies to people and fodder to cattle. The operation was considered complete and disbanded but was re-instituted when the weather turned foul two weeks later. On February 3, the Hayride forces were integrated into Operation Snowbound.

An aviator was detailed as the air officer on Pick's staff. Pick designated the missions while the air officer managed Air Force personnel and equipment. A total of 76 aircraft, ranging from helicopters to flying boxcars, participated in Operation Haylift, as the mission was called. They flew in all kinds of weather; made aerial photographs; conducted reconnaissances; and lifted hay, parts, men, equipment, and even weasels . Airfields built by the Engineers at Kearney, Casper, and Omaha were used. The airlift was expensive, so the urgency of the need and the availability of alternative ground routes governed the drop of supplies. People who were near starvation and cut off from overland help were aided first.

Unpredictability, mobility, and speed became the hallmarks of the operation. Task forces were organized. Each usually consisted of a snowplow, several dozers on huge lowboy transporter trucks, graders, and trucks. These forces were dispatched for snow clearance. Fleets of lowboys stood by as mobile reserves, They took the dozers quickly over open stretches of highway to the next series of drifts.

One of the 169 Army weasels - U.S. Army Photo

The 169 Army weasels used in the operation received high praise for their service as cross-country reconnaissance vehicles. On several occasions, they were the only kind of equipment that reached stranded farm and ranch families. The weasels were not always enough, so sleds were built and towed behind them . In tandem, they carried cargoes where the Army's standard 2-ton truck could not go.

Experience showed that the famous D-7, a tracked Caterpillar tractor, was the smallest useful machine in such an operation. The D-7 and the larger D-8 became the mainstays of the operation . The D-8 pushed through six feet of snow with its dozer blade. The Le Tourneau dozers proved to be the most efficient snow-pushing tracked vehicles used in the operation. Their wide footprint kept them from falling through the layers of snow and ice.

Operation Snowbound was unlike other emergency operations. The general disaster plan called for extensive mobilization of medical personnel. However, during Operation Snowbound, no masses of people were crowded into areas of potential epidemics. Unlike flood emergencies, the operation presented no problems with contaminated water supplies. So the medical mobilization was held in abeyance and only an 11-man team went to Rawlins, where an influx of military personnel associated with the operation burdened local facilities.

An emergency operation such as Snowbound had never occurred in such severe weather. Moreover, only during the war had the Engineers in the region built during the dead of winter. This lack of experience sometimes showed. The Engineers scheduled equipment to run 20 hours a day with 4 hours for maintenance, but contractors taught them that diesels had to be kept hot to prevent the formation of ice inside their cylinders . Once the machinery stopped, condensation could also form in the electrical system and make restarts all but impossible. Ice could also develop quickly in fuel tanks and clog lines. The Engineers took the contractors' advice and ran an around-the-clock operation.

24-hour refueling, U.S. Army photo
Dynamiting by the railroad - UPRR photo

Everyone involved in Operation Snowbound learned something. Civilians learned that prolonged subzero temperatures froze, cracked, and flattened synthetic rubber tires by the thousands. Contractors found that the arms supporting dozer blades cracked when they struck buried obstacles. Prolonged cold, which made the steel of the blade arms brittle, was again the culprit. The rail roads discovered that their rail-mounted snowplows were often ineffective in keeping the tracks open and had to use clamshells, draglines, and dynamite to move the snow. At the height of the operation, over 6,000 people participated. Federal personnel numbered 1,322 from the Armed Forces and 959 from the Missouri River Division. Contractor personnel totaled 4,008. Six workers lost their lives. On February 6, a writer in an Omaha newspaper asked, "How long can people stand it?" With the help of the Engineers, the people endured until March 15. On February 26, however, General Pick was ordered to Washington to serve as Chief of Engineers. He was replaced as task force commander by Brigadier General George C. Stewart. When the blizzards concentrated in North Dakota, Stewart moved his headquarters north and, with a warming trend, finally ended the operation.

Afterward, much of the Army's equipment was given to the States as a reserve in case of further blizzards. The mechanized equipment used in the operation makes an interesting order of battle. The military contributed 174 bulldozers, 12 graders, and 169 weasels. Contractors furnished 1,146 bulldozers, 109 graders, and 44 plows. A total of 1,654 pieces of mechanized equipment participated.

More than 1.2 million people resided in the approximately 193,000-square-mile operating area. An estimated 4 million head of cattle were saved from starvation and over 115,000 miles of roads were plowed to free almost 244,000 individuals. Messages of thanks poured into Omaha.

Some flooding occurred after Operation Snowbound, but it was trivial compared with what happened two years later. In 1951 , heavy snow came early. After a December thaw, freezing rain coated the Missouri valley with a sheet of ice. January brought 20 inches of snow onto the ice and a deep freeze that lasted longer than usual. On March 25, thermometers at Sioux City registered subzero readings. Large amounts of snow that contained unusually high quantities of moisture lay all along the river.

On March 27, the weather turned warm. Brigadier General Donald Shingler, the Division Engineer, consulted with his Districts. All along the basin, Engineer employees were diverted from their normal work. On March 29, they warned all levee districts responsible for maintaining federally built levees that the Missouri might flood. The temperature dipped for three days and then rose again on April 3. The first big melt followed and filled many of the Missouri's tributaries. Cold briefly returned before the temperature again warmed on April 11.

The narrows at Omaha

Ice melted on the tributaries before it did on the main stem, gorges occurred, and the flood began. Within a week, one of the greatest snowfalls on record melted and filled every depression in the Missouri basin with water. The dam across Frenchman Creek, near Hinsdale, Montana, gave way, and the waters that poured into the Milk River forced the evacuation of Havre, Montana. Other tributaries also added heavy flows to the Missouri. The Bad, White, James, Vermillion , Big Sioux, and Floyd Rivers all set stage or discharge records. The Weather Bureau, which had carefully monitored the snowpack and the melt, initially predicted the Missouri would crest at 26 feet at Bismarck. Laler, the rapid melt forced the meteorologists to raise their estimate to 28 feet.

The situation grew worse farther downstream. The city of Pierre lost three wells, and one-third of the nearly 6,000 residents lost their homes. At Sioux Falls, 1,400 people fled. The river spread out over thousands of acres before narrowing into the 1,500-foot funnel between Council Bluffs and Omaha.

The water carried all kinds of things with it. At Sioux City, it swept an entire lumberyard toward Omaha. Farther downstream, at Blencoe, Iowa, the water penetrated corn storage bins and saturated the kernels, which swelled until they burst the bins.

Water rises on the flashboard under Ak-Sar-Ben Bridge at the narrows at Omaha

As the river rose for its run through the narrows at Omaha, anxiety mounted on Jackson Street. Barriers against flooding included 12.4 miles of levees and a concrete floodwall that was over a mile long. Thirteen flood proof gates through the barrier protected intakes for municipal water supplies. Nineteen local storm sewers had 14 pumping stations to move water from the lowlands. Behind the levees and floodwall were 182 wells to pump out any water that seeped through.

The District had good reason to worry about the approaching crest. Omaha's protection system was designed to work in conjunction with six main stem dams. However, only Fort Peck Dam had been closed. The floodwall in front of the industrial district rested on porous cinders and slag and was protected by concrete-filled sheet piling sunk to the impervious clay 25 to 30 feet below ground.

As the crest rolled closer to Omaha, the Engineers went on an around-the-clock alert. In response to local demands, they raised the levees north of Omaha and Council Bluffs by seven feet. They also asked for additional people from Corps offices elsewhere in the country and sought sandbags to augment their meager supply of 4,000. As the estimates of the height of the crest increased from 26 to 28.5 feet, General Shingler warned local leaders that holding the levees would be a struggle.

The river rose to 22.6 feet on Saturday, April 12, which was five days before the expected crest. The District's Florence boatyard and the Port of Omaha were submerged. High water north of Council Bluffs
closed the Illinois Central Railroad. In Council Bluffs, the Iowa National Guard assumed police duties to prevent looting in the evacuated portions of town. Timber roads were laid over the soggy ground to the levees at the north end of town.

Backing up flashboard
Sand boils at Playland Park

On Sunday, April 13, the river exceeded the 1881 record flood stage. When this occurred, General Shingler and the District Engineer, Colonel Henry J. Hoeffer, made an important decision. They had plans in hand, drawn up by Les Cleveland of the District, to build a four-foot flash board atop the levees. The flashboard was simply a solid fence of shiplapped sheathing mounted on posts and backed by sandbags. On the Council Bluffs side, the additions raised the levees to 36.5 feet. On the Omaha side, mud boxes made of two flashboards held apart by spreaders, bound together with wire, filled with dirt, and fronted by rows of sandbags raised the levee height. The flashboards and mud boxes were made in assembly line fashion. One crew moved down the levees, drove 2-by-4's, and placed the spreaders. A second group put on the sheathing, a third filled the boxes with dirt, and a fourth sandbagged. On the Council Bluffs side, volunteers built nine miles of flashboards in 36 hours and sandbagged them in another 40.

The gage read 25.5 feet on Monday, April 14, and the Engineers faced a critical danger in front of Council Bluffs' Playland Park . Sand boils erupted as hydrostatiC pressure forced the water through the soil. District employees on the levees helped volunteers fill and place sandbags to contain the water. With only 3 days left before the crest's arrival, it was a nervous time. Some 6,000 soldiers were on the levees, and Major General Pick returned from Washington.

As thousands nervously watched the levees, the Weather Bureau produced a revised estimate of the crest. The meteorologists predicted a crest of 31.5 feet through the Omaha funnel in three days. Such a height would be six feet over the design capacity of the flood control works. Schools closed in Council
Bluffs, and Shingler said, "We're in a hell of a lot of trouble."

On April 15, the gage read 27 feet and rising. Sand boils appeared throughout the landside of the levees. They became waterlogged, and the likelihood of riverside sloughing grew. The 5th Army soldiers from Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, sandbagged the levees where they abutted the bluff on the Iowa side. By that time, about two-thirds of the city's people had been evacuated.

When President Harry Truman arrived in Omaha on the next day, the gage stood at 28.3 feet. By that time, the flashboards were finished and sodden Engineers, soldiers, and volunteers watched the levees. More sand boils appeared, and the concrete floodwall bent. Survey crews determined that the waterlogged levees were sinking of their own weight. Flood fighters moved from boil to boil and sandbagged the expansion joints in the floodwall. Pick said that April 17 would be the critical day, but the crest still did not come. On that day, the gage registered 29.5 feet and rising. As the sun went down, the levee lights went on, and the river continued to rise.

Throughout the night, people worked and worried as the Missouri continued to rise. The brown, debris-laden stream was still swelling as dawn came. By full light of day, the river could be seen inching up the flashboards. At 8:30 a.m., the river crested at 30.25 feet. Eight hours passed before the crest  fell. In every minute of that period, enough water flowed under the Ak-Sar-Ben Bridge to supply Council Bluffs for 42 days.

The menace did not disappear when the crest fell. The levees were saturated, and the danger that the river might undercut the earthen works remained. As the day wore on and no major difficulties appeared, a sense of relief developed. The feeling was short-lived, however, because at 6:45 p.m., the Grace Street sewer let go.

The twin nine-by-seven-foot tunnels of the storm drain, which emptied into the river, had been subjected to 7,000 pounds of pressure per linear foot for several days. The tunnels gave way and spewed enough water to flood 2,000 acres to a one-foot depth. The eruption threatened to flank and undermine the levees and allow the river to

Filling sandbags
Sandbag brigade

pour through. The possibility of the serious failure had been anticipated. Forty 20-foot steel I-beams were trucked to the water's edge, put aboard two barges, and towed over the outlet. Then the beams were dropped into the river. A barge full of rock was then towed into position, and a bulldozer operator pushed the rock over the side. About 500 men then began the familiar process of placing sandbags, this time over the beams and rocks. For almost 10 hours, the work went on. By 4 o'clock the next morning, the flow diminished to a trickle. The break flooded 1,000 acres but the levees held.

Although the crest of the flood did not damage Omaha or Council Bluffs, all privately built levees in the area failed. Of the nine built by the Omaha District, three incomplete ones were over-topped. In Pottawattamie County, Iowa, 53.5 square miles were flooded. The eight railroads running into Council Bluffs sustained over $1 million in damages. The final count also showed that 7,762 Council Bluffs homes had been evacuated, making 28,251 people homeless. Total damages there amounted to $7.2 million.

The statistics of the flood fight speak for themselves. The materials and equipment used in the operation included 5,500,000 sandbags, 1,396 dump trucks, 52 radio cars, 38 draglines, 83 scoop shovels, and 2,500 carbide flares. The force that held the river when it was within six inches of topping the long, bending floodwall consisted of 25,000 men and women, more people than an Army Division.

In the Missouri basin, the period of overabundant rain was over. Thousands of miles from Omaha, in the North Pacific Ocean, cold waters slowly welled up. A prolonged cloud cover lingered over them. Little moisture was drawn up into the air, so the winds would carry little rain eastward into the Missouri basin . As January, February, and March 1953 passed, disturbing reports of light snowfalls came into Omaha from all over the District. The Fort Randall Dam had been closed and was impounding water. From outside the District came widespread reports of low precipitation. After a decade of rain and the flood fight of 1952, drought was returning to the Missouri River basin.

The Omaha Engineers were barely prepared for the drought. Only the Fort Randall Dam could be of any help. What little water had been stored at the dam had to be released to keep navigation open on the river. About 75 percent of the water that flowed past Omaha came from Fort Peck. Without the releases from Fort Peck, not even the minimum flow would have been available.

Although the drought hit farmers the hardest, it also menaced city dwellers. Lincoln faced a water crisis. Grand Island also had a serious municipal water shortage. Soil samples from western Iowa showed a disturbing lack of moisture deep in the earth, and great winds blew on the basin's western slopes. Strong winds started dust storms reminiscent of the 1930's.

Omaha District could do nothing about the drought but continue to raise the main stem dams and control the river's flow. Conditions grew worse each year. The economic plight of agriculture worsened, and farmers left the land for factories. One banker said that dry-land farming would never see a revival.

The Bureau of Reclamation and the Engineers' Missouri River Division drew down their reservoirs early in 1957 and furnished emergency water supplies to municipalities. The navigation season on the Missouri River was delayed for six weeks. There was just not enough water for the barges. Ground water dropped so low in Nebraska that many streams dried up while others became mere trickles. The District did what it could to relieve suffering while helping the Nation fight a war in far-off Asia.