Outdoor Indiana Magazine - September / October 2008




DNR lends a hand

By Ben Shadley

CO's getting a briefing at the command center near Elnora.The Elnora Volunteer Fire Station looked like the nerve center for a small invasion force. Hastily parked police, fire and rescue vehicles from throughout the state jammed the gravel parking lot and covered most of the yard.

As one of the few places in this small town 100 miles southwest of Indianapolis that recent rains hadn’t rendered a shallow lake, the station became the makeshift flood-response area headquarters.

Above: Conservation officers finish lunch  and get a briefing at the command center before setting out to rescue homeowners from flooding near Elnora.

For the moment, however, the action had subsided. That gave rescuers a chance to regroup and rest. But the flood wasn’t finished wreaking havoc.

Early June 2008 will go down in Hoosier history with the dubious distinction of having pounded the state with the heaviest rains in recent history, delivering several inches, more than 10 in some places, in a few days. Many areas of central and southern Indiana hadn’t experienced that much rain in such a short time in 100 years or more. The damage forced many counties to declare a state of emergency.

By June 10, the majority of the deluge had passed. Even though the skies were clear, floodwaters continued to rise as the landscape rushed to shed excess water. Elnora was considered secure, meaning that rescue personnel had evacuated those residents in danger, but reports came in via police radio of trouble about 15 miles south, near the small town of Plainville, located near the West Fork of the White River. The river had overtopped the levee.

CO's accessing Columbus after heavy flooding.Indiana conservation officers in their distinctive green SUVs pulled out of the fire station with boats in tow and headed along the county road toward the high-water area. At a rural crossroads not far from the station, the COs stopped to rehash plans. Maps spread out on the hood of the convoy leader, the COs picked the best route. A few turns and 15 minutes later, they arrived at the bend of a gravel road surrounded by relatively dry rolling fields. A treeline marked the river’s path in the distance.

Right: Conservation officers use an I-65 off-ramp as a boat ram to access portions of Columbus, which, like many south central Indiana towns, suffered heavy flooding.

A couple of local police cruisers were already there. Another CO vehicle, towing a large airboat, was returning from the direction of the danger. A long walk from the path of the narrow road, barely visible with the naked eye, glimmering water broke the flat top of the grass-covered levee.

The local officers confirmed that a few farms could be in danger from the rising water—but the road didn’t go near enough to where the levee was overtopping to launch the DNR boats to evacuate anyone. The overtopping and rising water was farther south, so the COs moved again.

This time, floodwater literally marked the end of the road. Carrying clusters of floating corn husks from the fields, the water flowing over the levee was quickly turning farmland into a sizable lake. The COs stopped their vehicles where the gravel road disappeared into the water, still far from the homes, to assess their options. The flooded area, shallow and still, was perfect for the airboat.

CO's launching an airboat.Launching such a craft can best be described as a controlled drop. It sits on a trailer like a normal boat but doesn’t need to be floated free in order to operate. With two COs strapped into the still-trailered airboat, another officer backed the entire rig into shallow water at a good clip, then slammed the brakes. The craft slid off the trailer and landed in the inches-deep water, sounding like a small car crash minus the crunch.

Left: Conservation Officers Bryan Knoy, left, and David Reese launch their airboat as they prepare for flooding rescue missions near Plainville.

Such a start isn’t pretty, but the boat is built for such abuse and to access places normal boats can’t. Moments later, the engine came to life and the airboat whirred into the distance to check the homes.

The remaining COs measured the rising water. Lines drawn in the gravel and stakes driven at water’s edge gave a ballpark, if not scientific, indication of how quickly the flood was building. Initial results quickly told them to move their vehicles to higher ground and ready the other boat for a possible quick launch. Radio reports estimated the increase-rate at inches per half-hour to an inch an hour. Math aside, the COs said they could literally watch the water creep up the gravel road.

A pet reunited with it's owner.Another call on the radio, this time from the airboat, reported that the crew was bringing back one person and a cat. Both had been on land around which all roads had flooded. A few minutes later, the airboat arrived and off-loaded a young man carrying an aerated plastic box containing an irritated feline.

Right: Janessa Edwards and her cat Bebe reunite after conservation officers saved the pet during a flood rescue near Plainville.

With a yelled warning from the airboat operator to watch for its propeller wash, the vessel turned around and headed back to check another farm. This time the team evacuated the better part of a family. A mother and her young son and daughter arrived from their turkey farm, which, while not underwater, was isolated by it. The kids lugged heavy book bags. Asked why, one said, rather depressingly, that it was so they could do their homework.

This scenario of COs traveling to Hoosiers needing assistance, using their skills and equipment to provide it, and moving to the next trouble spot repeated itself throughout central and southern Indiana during and directly after the flooding.

All told, the COs rescued or evacuated 2,000 people and spent 900 hours dealing with the June floods.

Help from other DNR divisions

Surveying damage  of Prince's Lakes dam.While probably the most visible, COs weren’t the only DNR employees responding to the June deluge. Almost every division was involved in some way. From Fish and Wildlife employees loaning big, tractor-powered pumps to help relieve rising lakes, all the way to the communications staff ensuring that accurate information flowed smoothly from the field to the public and media, the DNR was at least knee deep in activity, agency wide.

Above: Employees from the DNR Division of Water and Executive Office survey damage to Princes Lake dam.

One nerve-wracking question often on the minds of Hoosiers, especially those living near man-made lakes, during heavy rain, is whether nearby dams can handle the extra water. Complete dam failures are rare. It is more common for components of dams to deteriorate or sustain damage that needs rehabilitation, such as seepage through and instability of the earthen embankment, deterioration of principal spillway pipes, or damage to the emergency spillway system from large flood events. Indiana, though, also has a large number of small- to medium-size man-made lakes with houses nearby and often more downstream.

Photographing a washed out road over Earlham Lake dam.Unusually heavy and prolonged rain can be a torture test for a dam, prodding it for weaknesses that could result from improper design, lack of maintenance or both. About 60 to 70 percent of dams in the state are privately owned, but the Division of Water advises owners of private dams when expert engineering assessments are necessary.

Right: Ken Smith, assistant director of the DNR Division of Water, photographs a washed out road over Earlham Lake Dam.

With all the rain, Water staff members spent some time in the field looking at dams that didn’t fare well. The Prince’s Lakes, Upper Peoga and Earlham Lake areas had dams that suffered damage, some of it extensive. Dam experts spent days touring affected areas, taking notes, analyzing problems and reviewing initial damage assessments. In Indiana, as throughout the rest of the country, the owners of dams are responsible for stabilizing and eventually repairing their damaged structures, and keeping them in safe operating condition. 

Similar to the COs, but in a more low-key manner, Water employees traveled the state doing their duty.

Taking stock

DNR director overlooking flooding at Raccoon Lake.Aside from cleanup and repair, which could still be happening in some places, one of the last DNR-wide steps toward recovery was assessing property damage.

For an overview, DNR director Robert E. Carter Jr. and State Parks and Reservoirs director Dan Bortner took an extended driving tour starting in the wee hours of one morning at Monroe Reservoir. They stopped by many of the hardest hit properties to see the destruction firsthand and meet with property managers to find out what they needed to get their facilities back in shape.

As an example of the time spent dealing with the flooding, Monroe Reservoir and Turkey Run State Park alone (as of press time) already had logged more than 5,000 hours dealing with the high water.

Carter and Bortner’s trip was more than just an extended sight-seeing tour. Carter gathered data that influenced how much money the DNR requested from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a huge factor toward effective recovery.

Above: DNR director Robert E. Carter Jr. looks over flooding at Raccoon Lake.

Sometimes the DNR’s charge of managing our state’s natural resources can seem as though it’s done at the pace of the changing seasons.

The DNR’s response to these floods showed just how quickly and effectively the diverse divisions of the DNR can pool their talents to address a widespread natural disaster, a performance of which all Hoosiers can be proud.