NORTH SIOUX CITY | For Tim Brown and Rick Wegher, partners in Brown Wegher Construction, last year's Missouri River flooding was a sink-or-swim deal.
"I'm sure Tim had second thoughts about merging," Wegher said with a grin, referring to the two principals entering into a partnership a couple of weeks before the flood.
"It totally solidified our relationship," Brown countered. "I think that character is revealed under stress. Through that 10-day stretch, Rick's decision-making and priorities were completely based upon community needs."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers increased the daily flow of water at dams along the river due to heavy snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and torrential rains in Western states. Based on Corps projections, Brown said mobilization efforts began before Memorial Day weekend.
"We were involved really early on in devising a plan with Dakota Dunes," Wegher added. "We were mobilizing earth moving contractors and staff to keep the Missouri River in its banks."
Brown Wegher Construction started moving dirt the Saturday before Memorial Day to get ahead of the river's rise.
Then, Dunes officials informed the men the Corps' projections were off and that the river would run substantially higher than the initial projection.
With a history of building homes in the Dunes over 20-plus years, Wegher had a good understanding of what would happen over the next days and weeks.
As time went on, the Corps changed its initial estimates on water release and, as Wegher put it, "Things got worse."
"Every time more water was released, we had to redesign the levee we were building to go up higher," he said. "Tim was kept busy finding earth borrow sites for the massive levies that contained the right soil characteristics to withstand the river's force."
As the Missouri River swelled last year to historic levels, many residents were forced to evacuate the area.
"We called in all kinds of reinforcements," Wegher said. "The scope of the work just got bigger and bigger."
The construction company had a couple of advantages, however.
"We found a vein of clay so deep that we could build the levees without searching all over for fill," Wegher said. "The other plus was (S.D.) Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Lt. Gov. Matt Michaels. We were fortunate they had the vision to send and provide assistance. They also brought (S.D.) Secretary of Agriculture Walt Bones. He was amazingly helpful by committing resources in a rapid manner."
Even with the assistance, both Brown and Wegher estimated they put in a number of 20-hour days to combat the flooding.
"You just kept going," Wegher said matter of factly. "I think we finally were back in the office for the first time in mid-July. But you didn't feel it was an obligation. You felt it was a necessity."
"At times we were loading a truck every 12 seconds for six days," Brown added. "We both have friends who live in the Dunes. It was really a community thing."
Fighting the Missouri River flooding was something that just had to be done, the partners agreed.
"If we didn't build the levees, there would have been 4 to 8 feet of water flooding people's homes," Wegher said. "When we were halfway through with building the levees, the Corps people asked if we could accomplish our task. What were we supposed to say? No? We said, 'Yes, sir.'"
The levees went up, but all was not rosy, Brown noted.
"I remember we had our first night off 10 days after we started and one of the pipes that was taking water into the Big Sioux River failed," he said. "Then, another pipe failed and we had to fix that."
"The next big challenge was the day they were going to let people back in for the first time since the evacuation," Wegher recalled. "I got a call that morning at 4:30 saying there was a breach in the levee, a 50-foot hole. That was a head-scratcher. We came up with a different plan. We brought in 8,000 tons of riprap (rock or other material used as fill). In two days, we had it fixed."
Ultimately, Wegher estimated 90 percent of the 400 homes that would have been flooded were saved from major damage.
"We won," he said. "It was never a job. I feel blessed we were able to do what we did."
"However, it was good to return to a sense of normalcy," Brown admitted.