Iowa’s I-29 Dragway Begins Mending From Historic Midwest Flood

Iowa's I-29 Dragway Begins Mending From Historic Midwest Flood

Heavy rainfall events combined with rapid snowmelt throughout the Midwest are to blame for historic flooding in the Missouri River Basin in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri and points upstream and downstream, from South Dakota to Saint Louis. The result has been more than an estimated $1 billion in damage, countless breached levees and dam systems, and a handful of flood-related deaths as entire towns and thousands of homes have been overwhelmed by rising waters.

Situated just off of I-5 in Pacific Junction, Iowa, a mere mile and a half from the Missouri River, sits the I-29 Dragway and the Raceway Park of the Midlands. Across the street is owner John Finch’s home. In early March, with the nearest levee, located just four miles away, pushed to its limits, Finch was given only hours notice of the impending floodwaters. With the help of family, staff, and friends, he scrambled to retrieve as many important documents and belongings as possible from his home and the raceway. As the levee gave way, a 6-inch high wall of water rushed across the lowlands between the Missouri River and I-29, forcing Finch and company to scramble from the property to higher ground.

His home and the the 200-acre facility were both were consumed by the quickly-rising floodwaters and within a week, the water had risen to an historic 16-feet above ground level, fully submerging the track and many of its structures, the tallest of which could be seen poking out from above the water in drone camera footage captured by 1320Video in a particularly eery scene.

Finch’s home — his wife’s dream home which had been dammed following the flood of 2011 that reached a mere 2-feet, a level Finch never imagined could be exceeded — was flooded up to the highest point of the roof. Finch was helpless, but he was also angry at politically-driven decisions regarding the nation’s dam and levee systems dating back decades for the damage — a highly divisive thought shared among the population all up and down the Missouri River.

This is my life’s work, and insurance only covers a penance of it. I just have to pick up the pieces and make the best of it. – John Finch

“They called me about 9 o’clock in the morning on a Friday and said everyone is evacuating, it’s going to breach. I had about 12 hours notice and we were over there at the track for two or three hours before a wall of water came across the parking lot,” Finch explains.

Finch, an area businessman who purchased the track, formerly known as Mid-America Motorplex, from its original owners, estimates he lost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million at the track — that before he’s even been able to adequately survey the property, which is still under more than a foot of water. With a maximum of $250,000 covered under his flood insurance policy for his personal property, it’s a huge financial hit — nevermind being displaced from his home. There was no flood insurance on the racetrack.

I-29 near the peak of the flood level.

“The government and the people running it are just so stupid. I’m a dam expert now. I could tell you a lot of things that would be very easy to keep this from happening again,” Finch says. “In 2011 when it flooded, it was a walk in the park. There was plenty of notice that the dams were full and they were opening them up.”

Finch notes that this time around, policies involving the various dams and levees along the Missouri River — and the reasons for releasing or storing water at various points — was a complete failure, as the damage and financial losses, nevermind the loss of human life and wildlife, was greater than those for which the policies were enacted to protect in the first place.

The current flooding, with one to two feet of water standing on the property.

“We could have spent a million dollars transplanting birds and wildlife someplace else instead of the Missouri River, but we have spent billions now, and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. I think Iowa is going to surpass the numbers they’ve published. And people are going to be on waiting lists forever to rebuild their homes. We don’t even have enough equipment to clean up all the trash in Iowa. It was all just the perfect storm of factors.”

“I lost a couple million dollars between my home and the track,” Finch continues. “All of my equipment and my belongings, a bunch of my paperwork and records, it’s all gone. The IRS …my documents for them are all floating down at their Saint Louis office somewhere.”

Despite the setback, the 61-year-old says quitting is not an option, even in the face of what many are already suggesting could be a round-two of significant flooding as additional, tightly-packed snow melts off into the river upstream.

“I never say never. Giving up is not in my vocabulary. I don’t want to cry like everyone else. The bottom line is we do a lot of good things, and if it [the track] goes away, they’ll never build another one. If we can keep the racetrack, life will be good. I’d like to see kids be able to get started in this stuff, get them off the street.”

Finch says the racing surfaces, his chief concern as it soaked under 16-feet of river water, appear to have weathered the ordeal better than expected from initial surveys. Many of the structures that weren’t washed away entirely — including the concessions and concession equipment— are complete write-offs. Nevertheless, he says there has been an outpouring of support from locals who have already mobilized to assist, both physically and financially — to get the track back up on it feet once the waters fully recede.

“I was really expecting the worst. We have no major blowouts in the track surfaces that we’ve been able to see in the drone footage. We’ll be surveying the track today. We think we can save the timing tower, and some of the timing equipment was up high enough that it should be okay, The sensors down low, all the brand new wiring, should dry up and we’ll just clean the connections and it will be okay. In hindsight, I should have gotten a bunch of people together and just driven all of the equipment out of there and parked it on I-29. I probably would have been arrested, and that’s fine, because it would have saved me as much as half a million dollars.

“But we’ve had a great response from people who are ready to pitch in. And we might set up an account at the bank for people that want to donate to help us make repairs.”

Finch adds in closing, “I came up from nothing and worked hard for everything I have, and with the stroke of a pen, somebody with no brains caused hate and discontent. I want to be the poster-child for changes in the laws so this doesn’t happen again. This is my life’s work, and insurance only covers a penance of it. I just have to pick up the pieces and make the best of it.”

Photos credit: 1320Video

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