Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
Local, state and federal officials had a busy afternoon in Havre Tuesday as they worked through what they would do if the Milk River were to flood and inundate communities below Fresno Reservoir. Dave Scanson of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation office in Billings, who coordinated the meeting, said the exercise is a required every three years to plan and coordinate action if a flood were to occur. If the dam at Fresno Reservoir failed or the water flowed over the spillway, communities downstream would be impacted in a very short time, he said. “If the dam were to fail, the wave would hit Havre in one-and-a-half hours,” Scanson said. Representatives of the Hill and Blaine county governments, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and the state Disaster and Emergency Services Division participated in the exercise with several representatives of Reclamation, which owns and operates Fresno Dam. Representatives of the Havre and Fort Belknap Indian Reservation governments did not attend the meeting. During the exercise, the participants split into groups and wrote what their actions would be during four scenarios simulating a flood. After their group work, each group told what it had written and then discussed what was presented. The participants said after the meeting that it was productive and helpful. Blaine County Commissioner Vic Miller said the exercise helped to put faces with names of contacts, as well as provide information about what resources are available and what actions would need to be taken in case of a flood emergency. “It’s good to have the discussion now (instead of during the emergency),” he said. “That’s what I see as the real positive part of it.” R. Mike LaFrentz, Bureau of Reclamation division manager of the Marias-Milk River divisions, said he was pleased with how the event went. “It was a great exercise,” he said. Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said events such as the flood exercise help with planning for an emergency. “Everybody learns what everybody else does,” she said. A historic simulation Scanson said Reclamation is required to hold a simulation every three years, alternating between a highly detailed simulation and a more general event. The event simulated in Havre Tuesday was based on an actual flood that occurred in 1952. Reclamation had scheduled a similar exercise, also based on that event, today in Malta. In 1952, water flowed over the spillway of Fresno Dam, built for irrigation storage and flood control from 1937 to 1939, inundating the Milk River Valley. Reclamation had taped maps showing the expected level of flooding in communities from Havre to Fort Belknap if the flood actually occurred, showing many communities experiencing severe flooding. “This is Chinook,” Scanson said about a slide of one of those maps shown during his presentation. “They’re pretty much flooded out by a spillway capacity release from Fresno.” In the first scenario in the simulation, Reclamation first sent a warning to the Blaine and Hill county governments that a dramatic increase in temperature and expected rainfall on top of accumulated snow was creating the likelihood of a flood. The simulated warning said the level of water in the reservoir had increased 5 feet in one day, reaching the top of the spillway. In the second scenario, the next day the water had risen to 5.8 feet higher than the spillway, creating a wave traveling down the Milk River. Another part of the simulation was that an Amtrak passenger train had derailed just east of Chinook. The third scenario, taking place the next day, had the amount of water coming into Fresno Reservoir dropping but the level of the reservoir increasing to 6.3 feet above the spillway. The scenario also i n c l u d e d t h e Mo n t a n a Department of Transportation closing U.S. Highway 2 at the Big Sandy Creek Bridge due to water washing against its support structure. The last scenario had the water level finally dropping in Fresno, but included the added problem of the settling ponds for Havre’s municipal water supply being inundated by the flood waters. Other events were added as the groups worked on their reactions to the four main scenarios. After the initial presentations, the main group split into parties by jurisdiction. Hill County Sheriff Don Brostrom and Tom Anderson, special agent with BNSF, worked on the actions of law enforcement. Hill County commissioners Bessette, Mike Wendland and Mike Anderson along with Jerry Otto, county road and bridge supervisor, and emergency services coordinator Ron Knudson worked on the Hill County actions. For Blaine County, commissioners Miller, Don Swenson and Dolores Plumage, road and bridge supervisor Tom Fairbank and DES coordinator Haley Gustitis detailed their actions. State DES district coordinator Ed Gierke also participated in the exercise. Planning and finding flaws One of the results of the exercise was finding gaps in information, such as Gierke saying he could not find where, on the state level, the agencies coordinating state action would be in contact with BNSF. Another was updating information for Reclamation, including its representatives finding out that Havre has a system of levees that probably would have prevented any of the scenario’s damage actually hitting the city. During the first scenario, Bessette told the group that the levee, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1955 in response to the 1952 flood, should prevent the flooding expected in the scenario. While all agencies would be notified and told to begin planning, as well as using media and a reverse application of enhanced 911 to warn county residents of possible flooding, a primary action would be to watch the impact on the levee, she said. “Basically, we’re just standing by at this point,” she said. Reclamation officials asked for information about that levee so it could be included in future planning. Anderson discussed what actions BNSF could take to help with the Amtrak derailment simulated in the second scenario. One of the actions he listed during the first scenario was warning the national passenger rail service of expected flooding as well as checking the freight trains en route and notifying the state government of any hazardous material on those trains, and planning to delay or reroute the trains. A large part of the planning included how the different jurisdictions would work together, such as planning for the Havre emergency services and hospital to help with the Amtrak derailment and the Hill County services to help cover for Havre at that time. The groups all provided detailed lists of the actions they would take to notify residents of the danger or to tell them evacuations were ordered, planning for the evacuations, closing roads, monitoring bridges and other activities. Gierke said as soon as the flooding was expected, state agencies would be notified and would be prepared to provide assistance, although that would extend to resources the agencies could provide to the local governments. Using those resources would be the responsibility of the local jurisdictions, he added. Gierke said the state action during the first stages of the event would be to take the pressure off of the local governments so they could take action. “It’s always going to be your event,” he said.