August 8, 2013

Rains fill reservoirs, delay start of Argonia’s school year

The rains giveth, and the rains taketh away.

The rains giveth, and the rains taketh away.

The same persistent showers and thunderstorms that have refilled Cheney Reservoir, leaving campers and sailors giddy, are sabotaging recovery efforts in Argonia so substantially that the start of the school year has been pushed back to after Labor Day.

“I hate rain,” Argonia superintendent Julie Dolley said Thursday afternoon.

Up in Harvey County, meanwhile, Halstead plans to go ahead with its annual Old Settlers Day celebrations this weekend — although they will be different than any in recent memory.

“Most of our activity’s down in Riverside Park,” Halstead City Administrator J.R. Hatfield said. “But since Riverside Park is about 4 feet under water right now …”

Many of the activities have been moved inside the levy that is shielding Halstead from the Little Arkansas, and the rodeo Friday night has been moved to the other side of town.

“It’s been here 126 years,” Hatfield said of the annual event, “so I don’t think we’re going to let a little rain stop it.”

More than a little rain fell early Thursday morning, prompting widespread street flooding across Wichita, authorities said.

The National Weather Service reported 1.59 inches of rain fell in about an hour, starting shortly after 4 a.m.

“It just came down so fast our drainage systems couldn’t handle it,” said Scott Smith, a meteorologist at the Wichita branch of the weather service.

Widespread street flooding was reported around Wichita before dawn, including numerous reports of vehicles becoming stranded in high water at intersections.

But Scott Lindebak, storm water division manager for the city’s public works department, said barricades cordoning off flooded streets were being removed by 10 a.m. Thursday.

“The systems worked reasonably well,” Lindebak said. “We had no major issues — none that weren’t forecasted.”

City crews are monitoring diversion structures, culverts and storm drains and clearing debris that restricts water flow, he said.

Much of south-central and southern Kansas received at least 1 1/2 inches early Thursday morning, Smith said.

In Reno County, officials were closely watching Cow Creek, which had finally started to drop a little late Wednesday. Hutchinson received 1.1 inches overnight into Thursday morning, emergency management director Bill Guy said.

“I’m hoping it won’t be too much” of an increase in water levels, he said. “If it keeps rising, we’re going to have some serious home damage.”

Kansas Emergency Management spokeswoman Sharon Watson said Thursday there were areas of minor river flooding, but the agency received no reports of damage or major flooding from the latest round of storms. Minor flooding continued along the banks of the Arkansas River and Little Arkansas River, as well as the Whitewater, Verdigris and Neosho rivers.

“Even though we didn’t see any significant challenges last night … causing evacuation or causing major roadways to be impacted, we are still concerned because the forecast is continuing to indicate that we are going to see significant rain over the next several days,” Watson said. “And with the rivers already high, that can only mean more problems for those areas that have high rivers.”

As of 7 a.m. Thursday, Wichita had received 7.57 inches of rain in August – including 1.71 inches Thursday.

Cheney Reservoir, which had been below 60 percent full early this year, was overflowing its banks Thursday morning.

“We’re coming up every minute,” park manager Ryan Stucky said. “Seeing all the boat docks floating, it’s a nice sight to see.”

Excited fishermen and sailors are coming out to investigate their favorite spots, he said, and avid campers are pitching tents in spite of all the rain.

His phone has been ringing nonstop, Stucky said.

“It’s pretty exciting,” he said. “Everyone’s happy, even if we flood a little bit.”

School delayed

Well, they’re not happy in Argonia.

A powerful line of thunderstorms that included straight-line winds of between 80 and 100 miles an hour ripped sections of the roof off Argonia’s elementary and high school gymnasium in late July and caused extensive damage elsewhere around town.

The persistent rains and robust winds have caused more damage and stymied efforts to recover, Dolley said.

“We’re on our third temporary roof on the elementary (school) roof,” she said. “Every time it’s rained, we’ve still been taking on water in this building.”

On Thursday morning, school officials came in to an inch of water on the floor.

“It’s just been a real mess,” Dolley said. “We just can’t afford to keep taking on water.”

Most of the elementary school classrooms now need new flooring, new bookshelves and new paint, she said. The school needs new insulation and ceiling tiles. In many respects, they’ll need to build a new school in the existing shell.

“It’s going to be a complete overhaul in every classroom,” Dolley said. “Our elementary teachers are basically starting completely over.”

The high school roof has been replaced, she said, but the basketball court still needs to be replaced. With so much work to do, the start of the school year has been pushed back from Aug. 22 to Sept. 3 — the day after Labor Day.

School administrators juggled the school calendar so that they only had to add one day to the end of the school year in May, Dolley said. They made up the roughly two-week difference by reducing in-service days and cutting the number of snow days factored into the schedule in half, to five.

“We’ll just have to hope it’s not a severe winter,” she said.

The materials for the elementary school’s new metal roof arrived Thursday, Dolley said. But they need a stretch of dry weather to install it.

“I can’t remember the last day it didn’t rain,” Stucky said.

It’ll rain again Friday, forecasters say.

“We’re stuck in this pattern,” said Smith, the meteorologist. “The pattern doesn’t want to change.”

Most of the weekend should be dry, Smith said – at least until Sunday night, when more rain enters the forecast. Slight chances for rain then persist through the rest of the week, forecasters say.

Road damage

Harvey County officials have joined neighboring Reno County in warning that residents who drive past barricades and into trouble on flooded roads face potential citations or criminal charges.

Several roads around the county are under water in places, Emergency Management director Lon Buller said, and motorists could find themselves driving into trouble because road beds have been washed away.

“We do know there’s some pretty severe damage to some roads,” Buller said. “In a lot of cases, we’re going to have to wait till the water goes down before we have an idea how bad it is.”

Megan Hammersmith, director of the Central Kansas Chapter of the American Red Cross, said four homes in Reno County were destroyed by flooding and 11 homes have major damage. Another 180 homes have minor damage and 56 other homes were affected.

Mostly minor damage was reported to 30 homes in Harvey County and 60 homes in the city of Ellinwood. About 122 homes were flooded last week in Lindsborg.

State parks

Stucky, the park manager, said he doesn’t expect water levels at Cheney to stop climbing for a while.

As of 2 p.m. Thursday, Cheney’s flood control pool was at 8.36 percent and rising. That’s the excess water the reservoir is holding. El Dorado’s flood control pool was at 7.52 percent.

Cheney and El Dorado aren’t the only reservoirs experiencing substantial inflows in the region.

Draining a large portion of the Flint Hills, the flooding Verdigris River has Toronto Reservoir about 21 feet above normal, said Kimberly Jones, manager at Toronto’s Cross Timbers State Park. Jones said the lake is expected to rise another 10 feet by the middle of next week.

“We’ll have some primitive camping areas going under water and lose 11 utility sites at Toronto Point,” Jones said. “The Holiday Hills camping area is essentially closed because of water over the roads.”

Most of the state park’s cabins have also been closed due to high water.

Jones said all boat ramps at Toronto are closed, and her state park has stopped loaning canoes and kayaks to campers.

“Until we come down to just about 8 feet high, that’s closed,” she said. “It’s just too dangerous to be out on the lake when it’s that high.”

Asked to look ahead a few weeks to the upcoming Labor Day weekend holiday, Jones said a lot depends on possible future rains and when the Corps of Engineers begins releasing water.

Under normal conditions, she said, she would expect it to possibly be down to about 15 feet above normal by the holiday.

“If we do, by that time our group camping facilities should be open but I don’t believe we’ll have functional boat ramps,” Jones said. “This will be the fourth time I’ve seen it at 30 feet (above normal) in 14 years.

“It happens.”

Contributing: Michael Pearce of The Eagle, Associated Press

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