By Michael Avok
HAMBURG, Iowa (Reuters) - Massive earth-moving machines raced on Tuesday to build a wall to hold back Missouri River floodwaters that could swamp the town of Hamburg, Iowa, but the boys practicing baseball nearby paid little notice.
The seventh and eighth graders from the Nishnabotna Blue Devils focused instead on kicking empty sports-drink bottles in the dugout and swinging bats -- not the sandbags lining the storefronts on the five blocks of Main Street.
"We're going to get better, newspaper man," one ballplayer said. "We've got a double-header on Saturday."
First-year head coach Melvin Hurst, whose team has won only one game so far this year, said they had contingency plans.
"Until it floods, we'll be here," Hurst said.
Many residents of the town of 1,200 people took a wait-and-see approach to the warnings from federal officials that a river levee could fail, sending water up to eight feet deep hurtling toward Hamburg.
"We don't get too excited around here until we see the water coming," said Bobby Haun, 80, who was polishing a truck at the local fire hall across the street from Clayton Field.
Haun, who said he was getting ready to remove equipment from the fire hall just in case, said that he did not think downtown Hamburg would get the wall of water projected. He was preparing nonetheless.
"You have got to be prepared for the worst. And they closed the Post Office today," he said. "They've never done that before."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects the patch of the partial levee break to hold while the secondary five-foot tall embankment is built in an arc around the southern section of Hamburg. The arc could take up to a week, officials said.
The Corps believes more levee breaches on the lower Missouri River are likely given the varying strengths of the flood protections and the height, speed and duration of planned releases of water from reservoirs.
PEAK RELEASES REACHED AT OAHE DAM
Flooding may shut low-lying sections of Interstate 29 that runs parallel to the river and floodwaters could reach two miles into Iowa, officials said.
The Corps has said heavy rains in May across the Upper Missouri system, coupled with a melting deep snowpack, left the reservoirs from Montana through South Dakota near capacity.
Ultimately, the Corps plans water releases to peak at a rate of 150,000 cubic feet per second from the five reservoirs in the Dakotas by about mid June, more than twice the previous record pace, and hold at least through mid August.
The Oahe Dam above Pierre, South Dakota, reached that planned peak pace on Tuesday. The rate may be increased if the area gets more rain than currently expected, the Corps has said.
The Missouri River basin forms the northwest portion of the Mississippi River basin that stretches from Montana to western New York and funnels water south into the Gulf of Mexico.
The river is expected to reach up to seven feet above flood stage at Sioux City, Omaha and Kansas City when the maximum release rate is reached.
In Northwest Missouri, the Corps supplied a portable dam and a sandbag machine to Parkville, Missouri, in the Kansas City metro area on Tuesday, spokeswoman Diana McCoy said.
In Atchison County in northwest Missouri, officials have called for a voluntary evacuation in low-lying areas, Chris Conn, a sheriff's office dispatcher, said on Tuesday.
Levees were holding in North Dakota and South Dakota.
Some 3,000 residents were displaced in Pierre, South Dakota, and Fort Pierre nearby. Some 630 homes have been evacuated, displacing 3,500 people, in affluent Dakota Dunes downstream from the last reservoir at Gavins Point.
In Bismarck, North Dakota, officials said Tuesday the river stage was now expected to be no higher than 19.5 feet, about a foot below prior estimates because the channel itself had become deeper from the rushing water.
(Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis and Kevin Murphy in Kansas City)