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Ice jam leads to flooding in Libby

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| January 18, 2011 11:40 AM

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Libby Flooding

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Workers travel Nevada Avenue by way of excavator. City and county crews, as well as a few contractors, helped break up the stream’s ice with excavators in order to prevent further ice jams.

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Roger Johnston watches as Frank Burkett helps a driver move his pickup out of the flood’s path on Nevada Avenue at about 9:50 a.m. on Monday. After a few tries, the tires gained traction but had to back up with the current of the water.

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Libby Flooding

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Libby Flooding

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Jason Place, front, and other Libby volunteer firefighters take a pizza break at the fire hall at noon Monday after the flooding began to subside.

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Jay Maloney and Cree Maloney, left, dig through ice and snow that buried the basement entrance to Randy Wiza’s house on Nevada Avenue. When the ice jam broke up, it threw chunks into Wiza’s yard and filled his basement with water.

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Libby Flooding

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Libby Flooding

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Logan Neubauer hands his brother, Levi Neubauer, a sandbag on West Bush Street just off of Nevada Avenue.

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By early afternoon, flood victims began pumping water out of their basements. Don Emery, whose rental home is pictured, also began packing his belongings into a moving truck.

An ice jam below a Flower Creek bridge

in Libby sent torrents of water through town on Monday morning –

destroying yards, flooding basements and temporarily making roads

impassable.

No one was hurt in the flash flood that

carried away a backyard shed, closed down Highway 2 and caused

residents to evacuate, according to emergency response officials.

Nevada Avenue homes directly downstream from the ice jam were

hardest hit – with basements reportedly being flooded with 3 to 6

feet of water – but the current also rushed east down Nevada’s

crossroads and fanned out as far north as Collins and Hamann

avenues. Cabinet Avenue property on the west side of Flower Creek

also took a beating.

Water pressure became so great on the

massive chunks of ice that dammed up below the bridge on West

Balsam Street that the water began spilling out along the

sides.

A downstream resident on Cabinet Avenue

was the first to report signs of flooding at 3:36 a.m., according

to Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe. At about 9:20 a.m. a surge of

water broke through, causing Nevada Avenue to become a shallow

river.

By 1:30 in the afternoon, Bowe said,

the incident was considered over and all emergency personnel were

sent home.

Rosie Roberts, 80, stood shivering

outside her home Monday morning with horror written on her face.

She looked at the water flowing from Nevada Avenue onto the street

in front of her house and the sandbags that a “kind soul” had

placed at her driveway. It was 9:10 a.m. The worst was yet to come,

volunteer firefighter Scott Beagle explained.

“We’re going to get a lot more water

coming down here pretty soon,” he told her.

At the urging of volunteers, Roberts

entered her home to collect supplies before leaving for the

voluntary evacuation. Still flustered, she took a minute to look

outside through the window.

“I don’t want my house to flood,” she

cried, and then turned to locate her coat, boots, purse and

medications.

By the time she made it out the door,

the knee-deep water ran too swift to walk across. Beagle took her

arm and guided her to a pickup, which transported her to higher

ground.

Beagle assured the frightened woman,

“It’ll all be over in about an hour.”

Officials had been monitoring the

build-up of ice at the bridge over the past weekend in preparation

for a potential flood, said Vic White, director of Lincoln County

Emergency Management Agency. The city experienced ice jams at the

same bridge in 1997 and 1974.

“The ice had built up to where it was

level or higher than the driving surface of the bridge for 100

yards (in both directions),” White said.

White met with officials from the

sheriff’s office and police department over the past weekend to go

over plans, and he and officers had been continually checking the

status of the ice jam.

“The last check that I made was 2 in

the morning,” he said, “and there was no signs of ice giving way –

just a lot of water.”

As soon as White learned of flooding,

he contacted the city crew to get a dump truck of sand out to

neighboring residents for sandbags. He alerted city and county

officials and then assembled teams of emergency responders.

Sometime after 4 a.m., homeowner Randy

Wiza heard the city’s emergency siren. It didn’t take long before

he learned what the fuss was about.

“I saw the sand truck come up the road

and then I knew,” he said, pointing out that his home withstood the

flood of ’97.

He and neighbors spent the morning

protecting their backyards with walls of sandbags. The barriers

worked OK until the surge came after 9 a.m., he said, then nothing

could hold it back.

“There used to be a shed there and a

fence,” he said, pointing. “Now it’s all gone.”

Slowly, the water drained from the

streets and by noon, most of the roads were re-opened for travel.

Boxes of pizza were stacked high on tables at the fire hall. Of the

department’s 30 volunteers, 28 were able to respond. They had

notified residents, sandbagged homes and blocked off dangerous

roads. They also made sure that electrical circuits and propane

tanks were safe from flooding.

During the 1997 flood, 17 or 18 propane

tanks were washed away, fire chief Tom Wood recalled. This time

around, firefighters dealt with only one tank that washed away

spewing propane.

Though Monday’s flood was nothing to

scoff at, he recalls the effects of Flower Creek’s ice jam in 1997

being more far-reaching.

“That particular flood, we were out

there two days solid,” he said.

Excavator operators, positioned at

every Flower Creek bridge in town to break up the ice, finished

their work by 1:30 p.m., according to Bowe.

By that time, residents returned home

and began pumping water out of their basements.

Schools and city and county buildings

had already been closed Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Day.

The response side of the emergency went

well, White said, because the community learned from the last

flood.

“We had the experience from ’97,” he

said. “A lot of those folks had been through that and they

understood what happened. They developed a really good plan on how

to attack that – the Flower Creek bridge all the way down.”