Water is essential for human survival, but it can also be a destructive force of Mother Nature. That’s something Osawatomie residents know all too well as they are flanked on one side by Pottawatomie Creek and on another by the Marais des Cygnes River.
“We live in fear of water,” said Ted Bartlett, city building inspector/codes official.
That fear was realized 10 years ago during the flood of 2007, when the Pottawatomie took everyone by surprise and overran its restrictive levy.
And it wasn’t just the fear of flash flooding from the Pottawatomie that was on everyone’s minds at the time. After several days of nonstop rain, much of the focus was on the Marais des Cygnes River.
Bartlett, who was the city’s fire chief in 2007, said the Pottawatomie had been checked previous to the major flooding incident, but officials believed it to be well within the limits.
However, the Pottawatomie, unlike the Marais des Cygnes, doesn’t have the multiple stopgaps upstream along its lines, so when rain poured in from the south, from areas like Garnett, it overburdened the creek suddenly and with little to no warning.
Osawatomie City Manager Don Cawby, who was living and working elsewhere at the time, said he feels for the staff and crews of Miami County and Osawatomie, who had to not only battle floodwaters and the resulting cleanup but who also had to deal with scavengers and other issues, because the city where he was working in 2007 faced the same thing.
It’s a catastrophe that cities all across the Midwest faced, and without the assistance of state and federal resources, he said things could have been a lot worse.
At the time of the Osawatomie flood, people from throughout the surrounding counties provided volunteers to help with the sandbagging and resource allocation for evacuees.
Because the flood took place in July, the heat nearly made things unbearable for crews as they worked to clean up the sludge formed from rotting vegetation, mud and sewage.
“This town stank horribly for months,” Bartlett said. “One thing we weren’t expecting – and should have been – was the fact that in the homes there was no electricity. The scavengers would take the freezers and empty them, dumping all the contents out there on the ground or the street.”
He said the stench from the rotting meat was just as bad as that from the sludge and only added to horrible aftermath of the flood.
While residents were evacuated, many had left pets at home not realizing they wouldn’t be able to return quickly to get them. Firefighters and volunteers were tasked with rescuing the stranded animals and at times, stranded people who tried to brave the flood waters before they receded.
Things have changed somewhat since that time, because with the experience of the flood, has came a different perspective. Precautions are in place that weren’t there before. Public Works and Utilities Director Blake Madden is working on a plan for improved flood-resistant resources, and Bartlett and Cawby agreed that the county’s comprehensive plan for emergencies has improved, saying that Miami County Emergency Management Coordinator Tim Gibbs is a great choice for the position.
While there’s not much that residents can do to prepare for something like the 2007 flood, Bartlett said he recommends keeping an emergency kit or bag ready at all times. For those who are more industrious, he also said bladder levies around homes have also been proven effective; however, generators are needed to sustain them.
Cawby said it’s important to take any notices about emergencies from the city seriously. Other than that, no two emergencies are the same so there are always going to be surprises along the way.
“It is what it is,” he said. “The levy has never been in danger of failing. It was designed to withstand a 100-year flood, but what we had went well beyond that. I think the county did a good job, and we were really fortunate to have Johnson County so close because a lot of people came to help out from there. I think we’re better prepared now, but in that situation, there’s not too much more you can do. And there’s no way small towns could survive something like that without state and federal aid.”